At the Top
Pagdating sa Dulo
The Philippines, 1971, 115’, Tagalog with English
Directed by: Ishmael Bernal
Script: Ishmael Bernal
Photography (b&w): Delfin Carretas
Editing: Teofilo de Leon
Music: Francisco Buencamino Jr
Production Companies: Frankesa Films, Mever Films
Cast: Rita Gomez (Ching/Paloma Miranda, the actress), Vic Vargas (Pinggoy Morales, the taxi driver), Eddie Garcia (Ruben, the director), Zenaida Amador (Misis, the producer), Rosemarie Gil (Carmen), Subas Herrero (the “Bomba” film producer), Ronaldo Valdez (Romeo), Elvira Manahan (Maria Teresa), Jonee Gamboa (the “Bomba” film director), Ernie Zarate (Roberto), Panchito
Date of First Release in Territory: June 10th, 1971 (Cinema One Originals Film Festival)
Date of Restored Film Release: November 19th, 2016
In the early 1970s, when Filipino cinema experienced a revival with “angry young men” like Lino Brocka, Mike de Leon or Joey Gosiengfiao, young Ishmael Bernal made a notorious debut with At the Top (Pagdating sa Dulo, literally: “When you reach the end”). At the time of the infamous “Bomba films,” filled with sex liberation and “scandal,” Bernal introduces us to the (under)world of cinema , demystifying what was still perceived as a glamorous world. Through the interconnected stories of various characters revolving around the shooting of a film by a more ambitious director (and not the too familiar “direk”, as he says) who wants to make a personal opera (Eddie Garcia, so young that we hardly recognize him at he beginning…), Bernal sets his own ambitions as a newcomer.
The main characters are a pathetic couple who can hardly stay together , and whose lives will be totally highjacked by the film: she is Ching (sexy Rita Gomez, a real Bomba star idol at the time), a “taxi dancer” (or a stripteaser, as we see her performing during the credits), and an alcoholic, who will become the new star “Paloma Miranda”, thanks to the director. He is Pinggoy Morales (Vic Vargas), a very ordinary macho taxi driver, who is nothing without her, but will become her partner on the way to Tinseltown.
As the story unrolls, Bernal (also script writer) unveils the true, sometimes sordid, aspects of the film milieu at that time. He doesn’t spare anyone, including the Uber-capricious “real Star” (the wife of Eddie Garcia), and the “all about money” producer, who kind of evokes the figure of Mother Lily… And, as we are already in the 70s, sexual aspects are clearly shown, including the gay seducer of the actor, blackmailed by a journalist who threatens to reveal it in the open…
With a fresh bold talent, Bernal reveals how cinema can corrupt its characters lured by (fake?) glory and lust, until the premiere of the film, where Paloma Miranda arrives totally drunk, and is almost carried by Pinggoy to the stairs of “fame”. At the Top is a fascinating tale of how false promises can actually destroy its people.
This striking “opera prima” will be followed by numerous films of interest including A Speck in the Water (1976, shown at FEFF 2019), City After Dark (Manila by Night, 1980, under restoration), or Miracle (Himala, 1982, shown at FEFF 2018), among many others.
After his first film At the Top (1971), Ishmael Bernal (b. 1938) directed different types of films, from historical dramas like The Viper (El Vibora, 1972) to comedies like Half-breed, 1977, and to modern dramas, like Wild Flowers (1976), You Are Mine (1978), Pleasure (1979), the famous City After Dark (Manila by Night, 1980), Miracle (1982). He kept making films until Wating (1994), but died suddenly of a heart attack in June 1996. His work was always a bit shadowed abroad by that of his friends Lino Brocka or Mike de Leon, but remains one of the major works of the great Filipino cinema of that period.
1971 – At the Top
1972 – The Viper
1976 – Wild Flowers
1977 – Half-breed
1978 – You Are Mine
1979 – Pleasure
1980 – City After Dark
1982 – The Affair
1982 – Himala
1984 – Working Girls 1
1987 – Working Girls 2
1994 – Wating