MANILA, Philippines—Where in the world is “Genghis Khan”?
The prints of the first ever Filipino movie to be shown at the Venice Film Festival in 1952 were lost—and found.
The restored “Genghis Khan,” in high definition and digital cinema package (DCP) format, will have its grand premiere at this year’s Venice film festival on Sept. 6, the same day that another Filipino film, Brillante Mendoza’s “Thy Womb,” screens as an entry in the main competition of the fest.
It’s a fitting homecoming for “Genghis Khan” in Venice where it competed for the Golden Lion and reportedly drew raves from audiences six decades ago.
But its homecoming was not without a cliffhanger ending.
It was considered the “Holy Grail” of Filipino film archiving.
Some Filipino archivists thought that the Manuel Conde 1950 historical epic film had been irretrievably lost “as there is no existing print in the country,” according to Briccio Santos, chair of the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP), the government agency tasked to oversee the movie industry.
In a 2005 Inquirer story titled “Where in the world is ‘Genghis Khan,’” Filipino archivists said that prints of the movie were stashed away in various film vaults in Europe.
“Genghis Khan” proved to be elusive and the search for the film can only be described as a global treasure hunt.
Early this year, the Venice International Film Festival, led by its director Alberto Barbera, thought of including “Genghis” in a new section called “80!”—a retrospective of past entries.
Ten films are part of the retro and “Genghis” is the only Filipino film in the lineup. (The digitally restored “Himala,” directed by National Artist for Film Ishmael Bernal, is in a different section of the Venice fest: Venezia Classici.)
The Venice website explained that the films were chosen “on the basis of rarity” and most of the prints were culled from the collection of the Historic Archives of Contemporary Arts of the Biennale (Asac).
Asac archivists searched for “Genghis” in its libraries. At one point, Asac found cans marked “Genghis” in its stockrooms. But when the cans were opened, they were empty.
“We thought Conde sold ‘Genghis’ along with two of his lost films, ‘Sigfriedo’ and ‘Siete Infantes de Lara,’ to an Italian businessman after his Venice trip in 1952,” Santos said.
Weeks later, Asac stumbled on the five reels of “Genghis” in one of its warehouses.
The fourth reel was damaged, said Santos.
Asac archivists had to tap existing prints stored at the British Film Institute in London, and the Cinematheque Française in Paris, “to combine different elements from the best copies to the Venice print.”
After the discovery came the more complicated part: digitally restoring a 62-year-old film.
Santos looked at the challenge as an “opportunity” to forge a partnership with the Venice film festival.
“We got really excited when we found out that L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, Italy, was the laboratory tasked to restore ‘Genghis Khan,’” Santos pointed out. “We knew that the Bologna lab is a pioneer in film restoration and counts as clients prestigious archives, including Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation. We have been wanting to network with L’Immagine Ritrovata (for the longest time).”
Santos explained that the print that’s currently circulating “has an English narration that’s almost superimposed over the original Tagalog dialogue.”
“We’ve been trying to integrate the original Tagalog version to the restoration so that we can view it as it was initially shown in the Philippines in 1950,” Santos said.
The Philippine government shared half of the total restoration cost (P2 million) with the Venice fest.
Originally released in the Philippines in 1950, “Genghis” recounts the exploits of the founder of the Mongol empire. It could be considered as the first Filipino film that truly went “international.”
Comic Jun Urbano, Conde’s son, told the Inquirer that his father inked a deal with United Artists, a Hollywood film company, for the international release of “Genghis Khan.” “It was shown in the United States, Europe and all over Asia,” he recalled.
As a teenager, Urbano accompanied his father when he shot the film “Krus na Kawayan” in Vietnam, in 1956.
“When we passed by a moviehouse in downtown Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), we noticed that the marquee read ‘Genghis Khan.’ It was my father’s movie and it was dubbed in Vietnamese with Chinese subtitles.”
The Venice website described “Genghis Khan” as “an adventure movie filmed audaciously in luxuriant natural settings, with a scarcity of means, but ambitions worthy of Hollywood.”
After its Venice debut, the restored “Genghis” will be returned to the Philippines, as part of FDCP’s agreement with fest organizers.
“The existing prints of ‘Genghis’ will be repatriated back to the country and we’ll get to keep and exhibit the DCP of the restored film as well,” Santos said.
Venice director Barbera will turn over “Genghis” to the FDCP in a ceremony to be held in the country in the last week of September. “The Manila premiere (at the SM Mall of Asia) of the restored ‘Genghis’ will mark the official launching of the National Film Archive of the Philippines (NFAP),” Santos said.
The repatriation of “Genghis” is in compliance with the mandate of the NFAP, as the official repository of our country’s cinematic gems.
President Aquino’s Administrative Order No. 26 also directs all government agencies to turn over existing films and other audio-visual materials … to the NFAP, “as part of the government’s efforts to preserve the country’s artistic, cultural and historical treasures.”
This restoration project is significant, Santos explained, because “‘Genghis Khan’ brought Philippine cinema to the world’s attention.”
Santos described the film as “brilliant,” offering “a lot of lessons to today’s filmmakers and film buffs.”
Urbano recounted that even though his father didn’t have a big budget, he was able to create a seemingly lavish masterpiece. “Genghis” featured production design by National Artist for Painting Carlos “Botong” Francisco.
As a young boy, Urbano visited the set of “Genghis.” “My father didn’t have enough money to rent big studio lights. So he lit the village scene with the headlights of jeepneys,” he recalled.
Another famous anecdote concerned Conde’s purported use of authentic Mongolian horses.
“The Italians were impressed that my dad imported horses from Mongolia. He didn’t have the heart to tell them that, since he couldn’t afford to rent thoroughbreds, he used the small horses that pulled the calesas (horse-drawn carriages) that plied the Angono-Taytay route,” he said.
Instead of traveling to Mongolia, he filmed in the outskirts of Manila.
One pivotal scene was shot in Guadalupe, Makati, Urbano recounted. “Before billboards were set up in Guadalupe, it was a rocky cliff, overlooking the Pasig River and Highway 54, now known as Edsa. At that time, Highway 54 was a two-lane road and was so isolated that the bodies of salvage victims were dumped there.”
Gift for innovation
Conde’s gift for innovation was evident in the props and costumes, too.
He would personally visit Francisco’s studio, to ask the latter to design the film’s costumes.
“My dad hated using wooden swords in fight scenes, so he asked his props men, the Mariano brothers, to fashion swords from the shock absorbers of old jeepneys and suits of armor from yero (corrugated roof),” Urbano recalled.
When Urbano visited the set, he was awed by the various hairstyles of the cast. “The actors were not wearing wigs. The hair of the women were actually cut that way.”
According to show-biz lore, the film’s villain, Lou Salvador, supposedly agreed to shave his head in exchange for something bigger than a pay raise: Directorial credit. That is why the original prints and posters of the film bore Salvador’s name as director.
“That would’ve been possible. My father used to give his compadre Lou a native concoction, made from gugo (tree fiber), to cure his bald spot,” Urbano said. “My dad was generous in sharing credit, even though he did everything … he acted in it; he wrote the story; he raised the funds.”
He was quite a taskmaster on the set, Urbano recalled. “He wouldn’t think twice about screaming or cursing whenever someone was not doing his job properly. He once made a female star cry,” Urbano said.
Veteran actress Mila del Sol, who acted in Conde films like “Sawing Gantimpala,” agreed: “Manoling was strict, but the result was almost always worth it. He brought out the best in everyone. Almost all of the 15 movies we made were all blockbusters.”
In spite of his reputation as a terror on the set, his father would invariably turn into a nervous wreck once his film was unveiled in front of an audience.
“If he were alive today and were invited to Venice, my father would sit in the theater’s last row, the one nearest the exit. He’d be too scared to sit in front. He’d rather stay at the back and observe and listen to the viewers’ comments,” Urbano said.
Conde, or Manuel Pabustan Urbano in real life, died at age 69 in 1985.
Marred by controversy
Alongside National Artist for Film Gerardo de Leon, Conde was among “the most important filmmakers in the first Golden Age of Philippine cinema (from the 1940s to 1960s),” said Santos.
Urbano said his father was “ahead of his time … he could very well be the country’s first independent filmmaker.”
Santos agreed. He said Conde “embodied the indie spirit that allowed Filipino films to endure against all odds, challenges, crises and limitations through the years.”
Santos also noted that Conde’s “Juan Tamad” series is hailed as timeless sociopolitical satire. “It is unfortunate that there are no copies of the ‘Juan Tamad’ films in existence. But they remain relevant up to this day,” Santos said.
For all his contributions to Philippine cinema, he was declared a national artist in 2009. However, that year’s selection process for National Artist was marred by controversy after two names (theater practitioner Cecile Guidote-Alvarez and komiks novelist Carlo J. Caparas) were added by then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to the honor roll at the last minute.
The declaration of the 2009 batch of national artists is currently mired in an ongoing legal tussle.
“It’s sad that the conferment of the national artist honor on Conde was put on hold because of politics,” Santos said. “But the process needs to be heeded.”
The Conde family would rather not raise a fuss, out of a sense of delicadeza (propriety), Urbano said. “We don’t want to be accused of being too eager for that award.”
Still, Urbano is glad that his father’s work is again being recognized with the Venice screening. “My dad wanted to put Philippine cinema on the map. He was a closet patriot. He wanted to share his nationalist ideas to our people, without sounding preachy.”
In the 1950s, his father was on the verge of crossing over to mainstream Hollywood. “He was all set to direct a colossal action film on the construction of the Banawe Rice Terraces with Hollywood actor Anthony Quinn. It was supposed to be filmed in Cinemascope.”
Unfortunately, Hollywood nixed Conde’s proposal of a Filipino-American coproduction. “He didn’t want to be just a hired talent. He wanted to play an active role in the production. He wanted to show everyone that Filipino filmmakers were at par with the world’s best.”
Belatedly, “Genghis Khan” will have a double homecoming—in Venice and Manila.
Repatriation is vital, Santos said. “Once Italy returns and entrusts films from its collection to the NFAP, other countries will hopefully follow suit. It will be easier for us to repatriate Filipino films from different archives all over the world.”
The FDCP is currently working on the repatriation of two Filipino films (Gerry de Leon’s “Dyesebel” and “Banga ni Zimadar”) that are now stored in the film archives of Thailand. With a report from Ana Karina Avellana Cosio, contributor