New Joy in Old Film

What better way to celebrate the restoration of a long-lost film than to screen it in a regional arts festival?

With an outfit that is more samurai or shogun than Mongol warlord, Genghis Khan prays for spiritual aid in his quest for vengeance. Sure, this opening scene could have been made more impactful with the miracle of CGI (or not – your mileage may vary), but for a film made in 1950, all you need is the actor’s gravitas and some quick cuts to lightning bolts.

“Genghis Khan” is by no means historically accurate (just look at his samurai-shogun gear). Then again, it fares better in authenticity than 1956’s “The Conqueror” – a Genghis Khan film helmed by Howard Hughes – with John Wayne in yellowface and other anachronisms. The film is an apocryphal tale on Temujin’s ascension and his quest to unite his people and restore his home.  Manuel Conde does triple duty on the film, being the writer, director, and Genghis himself. It starts off lighthearted, but takes a darker turn after Temujin’s village is attacked and his father killed. Conde carries the titular role well, seamlessly transitioning from young Temujin to the ruthless conqueror.

A scene in “Genghis Khan”. Consumed by vengeance, Genghis Khan is swayed by a soothsayer.

Our story however isn’t about the rise of Genghis Khan. It’s about how this piece of film history was lost, found and then restored.

Old films harken back to a simpler time, when stories weren’t convoluted gambits and explosions didn’t dictate the shot. However, celluloid reels have an average lifespan of about 50 years if stored properly, and a lot of countries simply did not have the technology and facilities at the time for preserving old reels, including The Philippines, where “Genghis Khan” is from.

We [were] asking around in the region, because we knew some of our directors were depositing their films in countries like Singapore and in Europe. We didn’t have the facilities then,” said Jose Miguel de la Rosa, a man who holds many roles. He is Executive Director of the Philippine Film Export Service Office, which is part of the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP), and the Coordinator for the FILM ASEAN committee.

Jose Miguel de la Rosa, Coordinator, FILM ASEAN Committee.

So, it would seem as if the film was destined to be lost forever, with only an entry in a film registry to mark its brief existence.

After a period of searching, they got their break – prints were found in Italy, France and the UK. “It was like ‘eureka’! We found it! We found it!” exclaimed Jose.

Taking these damaged prints, the digital restoration was done by L’Immagine Ritrovata, and the finished product was repatriated. After sixty years, “Genghis Khan” – the piece that wowed critics and writers during its time – returned to its homeland, restored and updated.

That said, not all films were as fortunate as “Genghis Khan”.

“Because we have ASEAN integration, we are also promoting the exchange of films, so that we see Malaysian films, Indonesian films…We need everybody in the region to help out.”

“When we decided to build our national film archive, we approached people who knew where the old films were. Sadly, most of the films that were produced during that time (1950s and 60s) are gone,” Jose lamented. He hopes that “Genghis Khan” will be an example for film preservation in The Philippines, by restoring classics and showing them to his countrymen.

Regional Reach

Jose and his fellow film enthusiasts from his homeland aren’t going at it alone when it comes to reviving classics, knowing that countries in the region have experience dealing with this. FILM ASEAN is hence started by the FDCP with the purpose of strengthening collaboration between ASEAN member states in matters relating to film development. In our local context, FINAS is our government agency that communicates with the body.

“Because we have ASEAN integration, we are also promoting the exchange of films, so that we see Malaysian films, Indonesian films…We need everybody in the region to help out,” Jose said. FILM ASEAN is also a platform where member states can assist each other in terms of technology and expertise in film.

Of course, what better way to share your joy than to showcase your national treasure in a regional arts festival? “Genghis Khan” was the first film shown in the “ASEAN Classics” series, one of the many events in the 2015 George Town Festival.

Sitting at the courtyard of Cheah Kongsi with boiled peanuts readily available, the event is a blast to the past, bringing back the outdoor cinema of old. Watching the film, you can definitely see why the film was so well-received during its time – Manuel Conde’s superb storytelling makes for an intense tale that keeps you glued to your seat.

The Cheah Temple.
The outdoor cinema – complete with boiled peanuts!

Films are time capsules – the actors can age in real time, but their performances are sealed and captured in the reel, untarnished by chronological progression. As “Genghis Khan” ended and the lights came back on, I left knowing who Manuel Conde was in his prime – visionary director, skillful writer and robust actor. None of this would have happened without a country who eagerly searched for its national treasure – reminiscent of a shepherd looking for a lost sheep.

I certainly hope that through FILM ASEAN, more classics are unearthed and shown to people in the region – I could use a break from the “Hans Zimmer sound” (you know the one) and the over-the-top action sequences. ◆

George Town Festival is sponsored by the Penang State Government and supported by Tourism Malaysia