Movie review: 'Citizen Jake' is Mike de Leon at his angriest, bravest

Arnel Ramos, ANC-X

Posted at Mar 11 2018 08:19 PM | Updated as of Mar 11 2018 09:09 PM

Atom Araullo makes his movie debut in 'Citizen Jake'

There is a scene somewhere in the middle of "Citizen Jake" where the actor Lou Veloso, as Lucas, a former activist-turned-college professor, shares a sharply worded patriotic poem to his younger colleague Jake Herrera (Atom Araullo) inside a cafĂ© in Baguio. 

With hair long and grizzled, Lucas recites the poem with the stance of a valiant soul whose fire will not be extinguished by old age and disillusionment. It is one of the few moments, both reflective and yes, tender, that serve as breakers in this otherwise ferocious, angry narrative.

“Citizen Jake,” revered filmmaker Mike De Leon’s return to cinema after an 18-year hiatus, is the angriest and bravest the director has been since his “Sister Stella L.” 

“Sister Stella L,” the film about a nun who becomes a crusader for wronged laborers, was released at the tail end of the Marcos dictatorial rule. “Citizen Jake” premiered at the UP Film Institute Saturday, two years into the administration of Rodrigo Duterte who doesn’t seem to have any problem with the Marcoses at all. 

De Leon has never been this outright critical, although his trademark sophistication and cinematic sensibilities remain in place. As with his shorter anti-Marcos messages posted online in recent years, he tells us this is not the time to keep quiet, that we should do everything we can for the nation’s darkest hours never to repeat itself. No other filmmaker has the heft and daring, with the exception perhaps of the late Lino Brocka, to present our sad realities as they are in a celluloid package both technically polished, superbly acted, and perfectly tuned. 

It took a Mike De Leon to do it. And if we are any wiser, we should all pay attention and take heed. 

Framed within the personal drama of a young man struggling with contradictions within his own social class and the demands of a dysfunctional family, “Citizen Jake” is an unflinching look at the ills that have plagued and continue to haunt the nation as a whole. Jake Herrera’s personal story serves as a microcosm of the Filipino struggle.

Jake Herrera, born to privilege, resents his father Jacob, a Marcos crony-turned-present day senator. After years of estrangement, Jake has returned home and is seeking refuge in the family’s vacation home in Baguio. 

While in Baguio, Jake has built a new life by trying to avoid any association with his father’s tarnished reputation—working as a professor and a blogger and maintaining an aimless romance with a fellow teacher Mandy (Max Collins). But his exposes are mostly about his corrupt father and the Marcos family’s impending return to power, mostly driven out of personal rancor for his dad.

The crusade starts to grow outside of himself when one of Mandy’s students is found dead in a cabin. What follows is a gripping thriller, minus the shoot-outs and car chases, that unravels more ugly realities of man’s greed, duplicitousness, violent attempts to suppress truths, and as one character intones, “a sick way of exacting revenge.”

But “Citizen Jake” is more than merely the personal odyssey of Jake. It is a litany that spares no one from the American colonizers who grabbed the land from the natives of Baguio, reducing the rightful owners into servants to the white gods to our penchant to chronicle the mundane minutiae of our lives on social media; from our short memory as a people to boxers and movie stars elected as public officials.

And yet there are little details in the production which reveal that the film is strangely also a loving tribute to the director’s family’s legacy as a pioneer movie studio: a portrait of the grand old dame of the local biz Dona Sisang De Leon hangs quietly on one of the walls of the De Leon house in Baguio. It is the same house that served as Christopher de Leon’s house in De Leon’s antithesis of a romantic drama, “Kung Mangarap Ka’t Magising.” 

As is the case in other De Leon classics, “Citizen Jake” features a superlative cast. Gabby Eigenmann as Jake’s congressman older brother obsessed with “Godfather” movies, and Max Collins as Jake’s teacher-cum-social worker girlfriend, both give fine performances. 

But the real standouts are theater actor Teroy Guzman as Jake’s father and Luis “Adrian” Alandy as Jonie, the pony boy in Baguio and Jake’s kababata. Alandy is heartbreaking in the scene where his betrayal is made known and he breaks down by the stairs, realizing that at the very core of his friendship with Jake, he remains the servant and Jake the master. 

In shorter roles, Richard Quan as the henchman, Ruby Ruiz and Nanding Josef as the Baguio house caretaker couple, Alan Paule and Victor Neri as police officers all turn in good performances. But you have to hand it to the seasoned Cherie Gil and Nonie Buencamino to impress with their single scene performances, as well as relative newbie Anna Luna in a role with shades of Gina Alajar’s character in Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s “Brutal.” Luna is splendid, nailing the role from the nervous gestures to the tentative delivery. 

Thrust in the company of heavyweights, real-life journalist Atom Aurallo playing a journalist in his first acting job (he also co-wrote the script with De Leon and comics creator Noel Pascual) delivers a performance adequate for a complete screen tyro. One keeps thinking it could have been better but all things considered, it is not something the cinema newbie should be embarrassed about. 

There have been a number of dark political films of late but “Citizen Jake” is all of these movies (“Neomanila” and “Respeto” come to mind) clustered together, amplified. And the famously reclusive De Leon takes the risk of putting himself out there, easy prey to present-day self-professed opinion makers, with a blustery yet elegant work that does not mince words, dropping names along the way, grabbing you by the neck, and jolting you out of complacency. 

No one will walk away from “Citizen Jake” without spending the next few post-viewing hours confounded by its power, sheer virtuoso, and capacity to evoke and provoke. This is what the word indelible was coined for. 

“Citizen Jake” will have another public screening at UP Cine Adarna on Tuesday, March 13.