Film Review: People Power Bombshell: The Diary of Vietnam Rose

At first glance, People Power Bombshell: The Diary of Vietnam Rose seems to operate on a fairly straightforward premise: it is a documentary that covers the arduous filming process of an unfinished movie that starred Liz Alindogan — a rising star of 1980s Philippine cinema. Yet, as the film unfolds, the narrative becomes increasingly difficult to follow or make sense of, and by the film's end, one might feel at a loss for what has just unfolded. To decipher the perplexing nature of People Power Bombshell, however, one must go beyond the film's narratological content. Only then can one realise the art behind the camera: at its core, People Power Bombshell is an experimental, meta-cinematic film that intentionally seeks to deconstruct the filmic medium.

According to the director, John Torres, the unfinished film was found in the form of 35mm film rolls under Alindogan’s bed. The unfinished film was shot by acclaimed director Celso Ad Castillo, but Castillo and his team struggled to shoot — and complete — the film in its entirety. Torres combined the found footage of the unfinished film with new footage he shot to create People Power Bombshell. As the original film footage had no audio tracks, Torres and his team interviewed (most of) the original cast to expound on the entire filming ordeal, as well as provide improvised voice-overs for scenes from the found footage. The result, as captured in People Power Bombshell, is a rather confusing narrative: diegetically, the film seems to be about a bunch of Filipino actors who act as Vietnamese individuals for a movie. Thus, in this sense, People Power Bombshell is about a movie within a movie. Two male characters fall in love with Liz Alindogan, and there is a violent confrontation between them later on. Yet, these ‘fictional truths’ are predominantly inferred from fragmentary moments within the movie, and such moments require tremendous effort on the part of the viewer to comprehend everything that is going on.

Indeed, People Power Bombshell proves rather challenging when we confront the film with our conventional expectations of cinematic narrative. We see the old footage of Castillo’s original project interspersed with new footage, with the changes slowly progressing from smooth transitions to a somewhat disruptive manner. The visible decay of the original footage is aestheticized; the fading, fuzzy and damaged images come off as an intentional visual effect of sorts. Furthermore, People Power Bombshell is replete with grainy, restored images, confusing voiceover dialogues that do not match the characters’ genders at times, and what seems like a non-linear story arc that constantly travels between Alindogan and Castillo’s time to our contemporaneous era. 

Yet, the puzzling narrative that People Power Bombshell presents can be understood as a method of challenging, and negating, the conventional concepts of a stable, linear filmic narrative. By doing so, the film effectively highlights the illusory nature behind the creation process of any given movie. The integration of ostensibly random and incongruous sequences can be understood as a postmodernist move by Torres, employed to pay homage to the lost histories of Filipino cinema, all while self-reflexively highlighting the sense of artificiality that is involved in stitching together and creating a movie.

Another source of bewilderment is the (de)construction of both historical truths and fictional truths in the film. The film offers multiple glimpses into many historical moments, but never truly settles down on any. These moments include: Celso Ad Castillo’s legacy, as embodied in the unfinished film; the could-haves of Liz Alindogan, a rising Filipino actress in the 1980s; and the revolutionary socio-cultural context of 1980s Philippines. In a sense, film demonstrates both a refusal to formally rewrite history and a refusal to portray such a history accurately. Instead, People Power Bombshell mixes fact and fiction to produce a world that is always in flux and never truly settled in history. It is a film that looks to the future of the found footage, while simultaneously glaring back at the forgotten pasts of the Castillo's original intention and vision for his film. Through this, the film once again denies any straightforward interpretation of its content, thus negating the idea of a cohesive, linear storyline as articulated through the cinematic device. Thus, People Power Bombshell is neither a formal documentary nor a work of narrative fiction. Instead, the film sits on the interstitial space between the two genres: a baffling experimental film is neither truly fiction nor non-fiction.

People Power Bombshell is not an easy watch, as it often leaves the viewer with many clues and very few answers as to what they are watching. One might be even inclined to call it a form of avant garde cinema in terms of its ambition and technique, and vouch that the film would belong in an art exhibit more so than at a cinema screening. Yet, this is precisely what makes People Power Bombshell so unique: it is a meta-cinematic achievement that revolves around the making, and unmaking, of a complex film situated in a politically complex time. The film constantly reminds us of the film’s own materiality and artifice in constructing its own (fictional) truths. Through stretching the idea of the unreliable narrator to its limits, People Power Bombshell highlights the cinematic remediation of both fictional and real histories into the narrative that is presented to us. It is through understanding this remediation that we can invoke the ghosts of an almost forgotten past in Filipino cinematic history.

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