In ‘Nothing Deep,’ film critic Richard Bolisay takes time to ‘forget the work’

Richard Bolisay in Scotland, where he is pursuing a doctoral degree in film studies. (Photo: Richard Bolisay/Instagram)
Richard Bolisay at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where he is pursuing a doctoral degree in film studies. (Photo: Richard Bolisay/Instagram)

Clasping a half-consumed C2 bottle, Richard Bolisay alighted from his plain-looking bike – no basket mounted on its front, no flowers, no newspaper, nothing cinematic, nothing like you’d see in an indie movie set in a depressed yet charming town – the one he had been using for three years now, which he named “Max” after the German writer W. G. Sebald. He came in plain-looking clothes: maroon shorts and a dark blue polo shirt, a portion of his face covered by a mask in subdued violet. He wore a pair of plain-looking glasses. Again, nothing cinematic. His arrival was “nothing deep,” to borrow the title of his latest book. But his personality was far from it.

We met in a study area at the college where he completed his undergraduate degree and taught for three years – the place where his enduring passion for cinema all began. It was a full-circle moment for the film critic, three days before his flight to Scotland in the United Kingdom, where he would pursue a doctoral degree in film studies. “How does it feel to be back here?” I asked. “Nothing,” Richard said in jest, eyeing the college’s facade briefly. The way he said that nothing accented his it-is-what-it-is mantra, but also carried a weight informed by nostalgia and, as refined by time, maturity.

Filipino film critic Richard Bolisay launched his second book, “Nothing Deep,” on September 3 at Elias Brewery, 13 Ubay St., Sta. Mesa Heights, Quezon City. (Photo: Tom Estrera III)
Bolisay launched his second book, “Nothing Deep,” on September 3 at Elias Brewery, 13 Ubay St., Sta. Mesa Heights, Quezon City. (Photo: Tom Estrera III)

Ironically, cinema was not the thing that brought Richard to the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City. He first majored in landscape architecture before he shifted to a degree in film and audiovisual communication two years later. In his first try, he failed the program’s admission exam on Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s 1983 film “Karnal,” which took him aback, given that it was one of his favorites. “Apparently, the essay was not impressive,” he said. But, as Richard noted, “it is what it is.” And so he gave it another chance and made it. However, he was never into making films in the very directorial sense of the word. “I hated my production classes,” he admitted. Yet, he graduated in 2008.

Richard always knew he wanted to be a film critic – a label he had to come to terms with for ten years. The turning point, according to him, was when he began becoming “more of a cinephile” by going around the local movie circuit, making sure to tick his list of all film festivals. “I just wanted to be educated because the education here [in UP] was lacking. I wasn’t satisfied with my degree. I wanted more. It’s so deficient from my perspective. Of course, I had good teachers, but many were not. So I self-studied because watching films is education. I saw Japanese stuff, French films, Italian films, everything. Torrent was still not as popular at the time,” he recalled. “I guess I’m speaking from nostalgia’s point of view, but I also came from a specific time when it was the dominant [movie experience].”

Little did Richard know that his active participation in local film festivals would later propel him to become part of larger film initiatives abroad, such as in Berlin, Locarno, Hong Kong, Jeonju, Berwick, Edinburgh, and Brighton.

Contrary to its title, ‘Nothing Deep’ does not barely scratch the surface. Rather, it relentlessly looks for gaps to fill, confronts what is not there, and seeks the ‘Los Otros’ of our local cinema, the imprints that define it more as a process than a product.

Journey to first book

In 2007, Richard put up his WordPress blog, “Lilok Pelikula,” which he described as “a diary of sorts.” It became his playground, where he wrote anything about cinema, sans the deadlines, sans the paycheck, and sans the need to be serious and sound intelligent. “Cancel culture was still not a thing back then,” he quipped.

That is, until he gained readership and met film critic Alexis Tioseco, whose wish list for Philippine cinema mentioned Richard alongside his colleagues and longtime friends Dodo Dayao and Oggs Cruz, hoping that they “would get space in the broadsheets.”

“I think when he died, that kind of gave us that feeling that ‘Okay, we must continue what he started or keep holding on to this field or cultural thing,’ and we did for a while,” Richard said. “It was a great time to watch films and write about films. It was the boom of digital cinema. There were a lot of film festivals. We see each other at screenings. I always say it was a very lively time.”

It was not long before Richard toyed with the idea of publishing his first book at age 27 – which he credited to French film director François Truffaut, who released his first film, “The 400 Blows,” when he was 27 – only to realize later that his pipe dream did not pan out.

In 2018, in a random encounter in Paris, at the time when he was taking his master’s degree abroad at the University of Sussex, he was passing by a street he could no longer recall and was supposed to meet with someone when he saw a marker on a building that says “Truffaut lived here in the early days of his life.”

“Then I got reminded of that 27 number. Then I realized that I didn’t fulfill my plan. So when I got home, I wanted to start my first book. I wanted to publish my book,” Richard shared.

And so, at age 31, came his debut collection, “Break it to Me Gently: Essays on Filipino Film,” in October 2019. The book – derived mainly from the author’s reviews in “Lilok Pelikula,” which he closed in September 2017, exactly ten years after its birth – is a time capsule of Richard’s most active years of writing, capturing the sensibilities of a period often branded the Third Golden Age of Philippine Cinema.

Richard Bolisay takes his time crafting personal messages for his readers. (Photo: Tom Estrera III)
Bolisay takes his time crafting personal messages for his readers. (Photo: Tom Estrera III)

Something deep

Richard’s latest book, “Nothing Deep,” is a product of the same time and material condition. In fact, it is an excised chapter from the original 500-page, four-chapter manuscript of “Break it to Me Gently.” Yet, the second book acts as though it comes from a more relaxed, more mature, and more intimate position, unburdened by the hubris of its predecessor.

In “Nothing Deep,” Richard takes the time to “sit long, breathe deep, look around, move about, and forget the work.” This is where he tackles Philippine cinema by not talking about films, by essentially killing the function of the narrative, ergo forgetting the work. Contrary to its title, “Nothing Deep” does not barely scratch the surface. Rather, it relentlessly looks for gaps to fill, confronts what is not there, and seeks the “Los Otros” of our local cinema, the imprints that define it more as a process than a product.

“The second book is more loose because I was able to dance in it. The first one feels like it has something to prove,” he admitted.

“But how did it come about?” I asked. “It was spontaneous,” Richard recounted. “I think I released a [book] teaser before, saying that it’s gonna be called ‘This Time I’ll Be Sweeter,’ another Angela Bofill song. That was serious. And the mold of ‘This Time I’ll Be Sweeter’ was in the same vein as the Lav Diaz essay and Charo Santos [essay]. Long, sprawling, storytelling, creative nonfiction, although I don’t prefer the term, but something like that.”

I strive for criticism with imagination.Richard Bolisay

However, the two essays alone took Richard three to four months to polish. “I told myself, ‘I won’t be able to finish this book before I leave if I insist on what I want to do.’ But that was a very enjoyable, fruitful process. It just takes a very long time to do,” Richard pointed out as a matter of fact.

So he had no choice but to shelve “This Time I’ll Be Sweeter,” and out of something came “Nothing Deep,” whose title also came spontaneously. “The title speaks for itself,” Richard declared, “because when we’re brainstorming about the title, I just said in our Zoom meeting that I want a title like ‘Break it to Me Gently,’ something casual, nothing that sounds academic, you know, ‘nothing deep.’ Then we stared at each other. And someone said, ‘That works.’”

“My friends even found it funny because when you associate ‘Nothing Deep’ with me, there’s something about it like ‘Break it to Me Gently,’ in which I wasn’t breaking it gently. It has that kind of duplicity,” he added. “Of course, for some people it’s deep, but for me, it is what it is.”

Richard was also grateful that he didn’t have to subtitle the next book. He refuses to confine a work to a label, a limited set of words. “I started to get tired of how we talk about things like you have an expectation of what is poetry, essay, fiction,” he said. “For example, [when you read the Lav Diaz essay,] you might get the impression that I went to Calapan, but I did not. It came from how Charo told the story of shooting for ‘(Ang Babaeng) Humayo,’” he revealed, “but I also don’t want you to be limited. I don’t want to confine your imagination like if you thought that I went to Calapan, so be it … It’s part of the joys of writing that you have a freedom to go to certain places that labels limit.” This also partly explains the reason why the author is skeptical of loosely branding films as “queer,” “feminist,” “poverty porn,” “abortion film,” and so on.

“I strive for criticism with imagination,” he said.

Event-goers at Richard Bolisay’s book launch line up to have their copies signed. (Photo: Tom Estrera III)
Event-goers at Bolisay’s book launch line up to have their copies signed. (Photo: Tom Estrera III)

'Nothing Deep' launch

On the somber afternoon of September 3, Richard launched “Nothing Deep” at a restobar in Quezon City. I was the first guest to arrive at the place, welcomed by the author himself. Our meeting was far from intimidating. He was courteous. The venue was cozy, dimly lit, and unassuming. It was enough to gather Richard’s relatives, close friends, students, and people, many of whom are hardcore film buffs, who maintained a relationship with him in varying proximity.

Thirty minutes in, it seemed like no one would come, or so I thought. I met some of Richard’s friends, and we shared a table. I was sitting across from his partner, who was very cordial. Richard was rehearsing his speech at a table near the restobar’s balcony, dreading the crowd turnout. At around three o’clock, the still-small audience, patiently anticipating for the right moment to come, began to take pictures and checked out books from Everything’s Fine, the author’s publisher, stationed at the venue’s corner. Some, myself included, lined up to have their copies signed and seized the chance to talk to Richard.

I think it’s something that people often forget; that criticism is not just about passing judgment or giving a verdict. It’s about giving the audience or the readers a fuller picture of the state of things, whether it is a film or an issue.Richard Bolisay

At a quarter to five, it began raining, a little heavier than a drizzle, as if to complement the momentous day. Richard was in the middle of his long but lively speech, replete with relentless photo-taking. The crowd had grown huge in a snap. Richard’s UP orgmates and filmmakers Antoinette Jadaone and JP Habac were in attendance, alongside actors Joel Saracho, who was Richard’s co-star in his accidental role in Lav Diaz’s austere black-and-white film “Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon,” and Ian Pangilinan. His longtime friend, the reserved Dodo Dayao, was also there. Everyone was exchanging hugs and pleasantries. The on-the-house beer poured in left and right, the pungent smell lingering across the room. It was a raucous yet temperate mood for conversation. Outside was a more cruel waterscape, but everyone seemed too occupied to be perturbed.

In his speech, Richard said the task of the film critic is, first, to provide context and, second, to challenge. “Can you elaborate more on that?” I inquired during our interview. “Over time, it clarified to me what criticism is, and this is not prescriptive. It’s not like I wanted every critic to do this. But where I am right now, the criticism that’s beneficial, or at least useful, helpful really boils down to context. You can’t just stay strictly to story, narrative, what’s the story all about, what you have felt. For me, that’s valid, and I’ll give you time to refine your worldview or way of writing. But if you’ve been writing for five to ten years, at least you must already have a distal shift, a kind of realization like ‘Okay, how else can I refine my craft?’ So there, I reached that way of giving context to people. This is the time. This is where the film is coming from,” explained Richard.

True to the film critic’s words, context acts as the impetus of the second book. In “Nothing Deep,” Richard navigates a different space, detached from the confines of the narrative, but keeps it in perspective. He probes a specific tension of a specific time, parsing every nuance beyond form and structure, leaving no stone unturned, which culminates in a more compact and sober understanding of Philippine cinema.

“I think it’s something that people often forget; that criticism is not just about passing judgment or giving a verdict. It’s about giving the audience or the readers a fuller picture of the state of things, whether it is a film or an issue,” argued Richard. “How do you frame your writing? From what perspective do you view it? From what lens do you limit and liberate it? Where does the film come from, and where do you come from as a critic?”

But what about the act of challenging? Richard said it banks on imparting a critical stance. “Critique can never be objective. It’s a myth. The myth of objectivity. Like if you write about certain films, your politics and ideology will eventually become apparent, and that’s okay. There will always be bias and prejudice. It’s how you persuade people that you’re making a good point, you’re making a good argument,” he said, peeling the cover of the already-empty C2 bottle.

Learning from Sir Ricky

Of course, this realization from Richard was not a product of a dream factory. If anything, it was shaped by a years-long commitment to refining his craft, by the people who he inherited knowledge from, one way or another.

One of these people is Ricky Lee, often referred to by many as “Sir Ricky,” who was also present at the launch. Everyone was delighted to see the national artist but contained their elation. After acknowledging his presence, Richard shared a story: “When I was in my early twenties, over ten years ago, I received a text from my friend Karl Castro, Sir Ricky’s designer, asking if I could do the English translation of ‘Himala.’ Of course my first question was: ‘Why me?’ But I accepted the job, I didn’t even realize it was a difficult job. I just took it. Ricky Lee trusted in me, why would I not trust myself? I did it. The book was published. My name was alongside Ricky Lee and Jorge Arago, with a picture of Nora Aunor on the page. How did that even happen? And I was paid for it … I was paid 10,000 pesos. I was the son of a tricycle driver and vegetable vendor in Divisoria. That was the biggest amount of money I held in my life at the time.”

Years after this, Richard would be asked to write a position paper to nominate Sir Ricky for the Order of National Artists – a distinction that would be conferred on the venerated screenwriter in June 2022. “Nothing Deep” includes that position paper or “love letter to Sir Ricky.”

Richard Bolisay signs the book copy of national artist Ricky Lee. (Photo: Tom Estrera III)
Richard Bolisay signs the book copy of national artist Ricky Lee. (Photo: Tom Estrera III)

Apart from what was already written in the sprawling yet dynamic essay, I asked Richard what was the biggest thing he learned and always carried from Sir Ricky. “It’s really generosity,” said Richard, “in the sense that you can be very good, you can be very clever at what you do, but if you’re not generous, and when I say ‘generous,’ not just in the financial sense, but in the way you share your craft, your opportunities … that’s really him.”

“Then we would meet at screenings. We would talk about things. And I’m a film critic and oftentimes film critics are seen as enemies of filmmakers, of writers, of directors, but he was very, very accommodating, very nice. We had many encounters. And the lesson I always learn from him is always about life. It’s not about cinema per se,” he continued.

“Generosity will sharpen you as an artist. I think people take that for granted,” Richard said. In minutes, the rain fell in huge drops, partly clouding his voice. Cars passed by. The surrounding noise swiftly turned louder but was still manageable.

Critiquing vs writing

Richard touched on a sentiment during the book launch: “Everyone’s a critic, but not everyone is a writer. Most critics are not writers. Some critics forgot to be writers. Critics, to be effective, must write.” But these days, Richard swallows the bitter pill that he can barely write anything. In a moment of gentle vulnerability, he confessed that, without the act of writing, he would feel “useless, irrelevant, lifeless, soulless.”

“Writing is my way to really process things and ideas, so when the writing disappears, it feels like something has been taken from me to understand my life, my world, and all the stuff around me … I’m not prolific. I write very [little]. I publish very [little]. So the very few works that I’ve written are products of a long process of sitting down and thinking and, you know, like trying to understand what I’m writing about,” he said.

Yet, he carries on. Because, as he puts it, “cinema, in many ways, is about risks.” Now he is taking another risk as the next four years of his career will be devoted to his PhD at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland to recalibrate and reacquaint himself with the craft he has long defended.

And just like Alexis Tioseco, Richard also had a wishlist for Philippine cinema and local criticism culture.

“I hope that there would be younger people, younger critics that would take on the challenge of writing, and there are some. And I hope they would stay because that is the problem, the endurance, that some would be writing for a year or two, then they would become inactive,” the film critic said.

Shortly after our interview concluded, Richard ran into his former film students who had just attended their graduation rites at the time. The two greeted him for his new book, and they took a photo together. Their conversation was lively. They bantered and talked about career prospects. The rain finally subsided, the placid wind brushing against my face. I was behind them, quietly observing, discerning through that small and forgettable gesture what Richard meant by Ricky Lee’s generosity.

Lé Baltar is a Manila-based freelance journalist, covering entertainment and lifestyle stories for Yahoo Philippines. Follow them on Twitter @baltarle for latest news and updates. The views expressed are their own.