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Movies and Trains

EVERY NOW AND THEN, I would hear murmurs of queries on when train services to Bicol will resume. Most of these queries morph into desires and nostalgia to see the classic iron horse back clanging and honking along the tracks of our region. For now, as said in one of my poems, “the train station is quiet,” literally quiet—no personnel, no passengers, no vendors, no trains, only remnants of the rich past, memories of trains chugging to a complete halt at the station where throngs of passengers were caught in the noisy, liminal stupor of waiting and saying goodbyes.

I recall all these instances—together with numerous playtimes, meetings, comings and goings—with a most intense and recurring longing for the transport of my childhood. The irony is with the realization of the demise of it, an ever-surprising awareness of a pastiche of pathetic images before me: the ramshackle old train station, battered rickety trains and misshapen tracks. Gone were the images shown in the better movies way back some few decades ago. But even the movies have yet to see, again, a new era of better craft. Those were the days, as the hopeless would say.

In the late 1950s, the multi-story movie Bicol Express was first shown in Philippine moviehouses. It starred Dely Atayatayan, Max Alvarado and the then so young Fernando Poe Jr. and was produced by Premiere Productions. The movie was almost entirely shot in a train of the Manila Railroad Company (now PNR). It was simply classy. The coaches were clean, almost posh.

Any Bikolano—Noranian Bikolano, if being Bikolano is not synonymous to being a Noranian—must have seen that Nora Aunor-starrer of the seventies which title I could not remember for the sheer reason that I was not yet art-sensitive in my early years except for my interest in drawing. It had a scene showing the character of Nora in a Bikol-bound train leaving Paco station. A hint of decay was seen; but the film was nice in its melo-dramatic, neorealist attempts. At the least, ideologies were still there. Remember that Leonora Cabaltera Villamayor used to be a water vendor in the train station of Iriga City before she won in Tawag ng Tanghalan.

Time went by and the Philippine National Railways suffered economic setbacks that were made more severe by crippling natural calamities and the equally devastating government neglect. Those who did not have the opportunity to witness this gradual demise of our railroad industry may actually see patterns in recent films that employed images trains in their frames.

More recent films showed no better images of trains than those rusty box freight cars and shabby passenger coaches retired in Caloocan yard. These recent filmmakers—usually of ridiculous and artless action movies—used cars and coaches only to blow them up during bloody shoot-outs. In an attempt to imitate more technology-equipped American action movies, I once saw a Filipino action movie where the main character had a hand-to-hand combat with his archenemy on the roof of a train traversing the Palikpik-Ayungin bridge in Calauan, Laguna. Perhaps, the scene was merely for spectacle as the bridge is the deepest of all railway bridges in the Philippines. More ridiculous was Bala at Rosaryo which starred Bong Revilla in which the chase scene was taken in a Pasudeco train (small trains for transporting sugarcane around Negros province) painted over with a PNR label that gave it a trying hard, horror train-like appearance. We can only question sensibility when we see movies where shoot-outs are confined to abandoned train yards and old warehouses.

But even recent television shows also manifested the sorry state of our railways. No one will ever forget, I think, of Dolphy’s Home Along da Riles in the late 90s where all characters, except for Kevin Cosme’s officemates, belong to what is now called informal settlers. Tayong Dalawa (2009) had a season-ender combat scene taken at the PNR yard in Biñan, Laguna, where Ringo, played by Coco Martin, was gunned down while trying to elude the police.

This sorry state was even capitalized by some pseudo-neorealist documentarists and independent filmmakers in the uncountable films that featured (if not capitalized on) the distressing life along the railroad tracks of Metro Manila. The indie film Isnats showed trains as the transport of people getting away from their drug dealer-pursuers, while Sta. Mesa has a storyline that revolves around the life of a probinsiyano’s life in the delirium of the slums of Manila.

I have written it somewhere else then that the gradual decay of our railway system also meant death of the towns where its tracks slither through. Residents of these towns could only hope for the great come back of the express. Similarly, I would like to make a conjecture that this deterioration of our railroad is just a microcosm of a journey towards a rather more derelict society.

We often complain of our many senseless, inane films. But then, again, this too is just a microcosm of our own crumbling societal sensibilities. We want good trains, but we stone passing trains to death. We want good movies, but we always bear in ourselves the colonial stigma we label our films. Where now’s the rub? The individual Filipino may start ruminating.

Vic Nierva blogs at and supports