Eddie Garcia: In memoriam

The entertainment industry of the Philippines has an obsession with giving titles to its most bankable stars: titles that have become synonymous with the actors or actresses themselves. Superstar. Star for All Seasons. Megastar. Diamond Star. King of Comedy. The King. Earlier generations may also recall The Great Profile. But in an industry filled with kings, queens and stars, Eddie Garcia took a humble title—taken from his character’s name from a movie—and made it a legend bigger than himself: Manoy.

And today, the entertainment industry has lost its biggest brother, an actor and director who lent his name and talent to over 600 films in the span of 70 years, all of which are testaments to his longevity. A passionate artist with a strong, disciplined work ethic that built his reputation as the most prolific actor on the silver screen, whose appeal has endured for generations. (A Reddit thread from October 2018, about his photo on the cover of Esquire Philippines, ended up being more of a tribute page about him than about the photo itself.)

He was a long-time student of his craft, having been cast into Siete Infantes de Lara (his first film, in 1950) without any acting experience. And through the years, he strived to become a better performer, for any role he accepted is, in his words, “the best recommendation for your next film.” And Garcia never permitted himself to be typecast as an action star: he has taken roles in comedy and drama films as well, including Lino Brocka’s Tubog sa Ginto, which he said was his favorite performance (as a closeted gay man). He also immersed himself behind the scenes, shadowing directors, cinematographers and editors, before going on to direct over 30 films himself. For both his work in front and behind the camera, he has won numerous awards, even receiving an Urian for Best Actor before he died.

He himself was long considered a contender for being the next National Artist. Whether this honor will be given to him remains to be seen. But whether or not he earns that honor, he can rest contented that he has worked with and learned from six of the eight National Artists for Cinema, the exceptions being Lamberto Avellana and Kidlat Tahimik.

READ MORE: Eddie Garcia on his third Cinemalaya film ML (Martial Law)

More than his artistry, he has also been known for having a strong, focused work ethic, an attribute that younger generations can learn from regardless of their industry. His punctuality is the stuff of legends, almost always being the first person to report for duty on set; hence, the famous quip “you do not make Eddie Garcia wait”. (We at Cinema Bravo have been a witness to his punctuality. At the press conference for “Rainbow’s Sunset”, we arrived at the venue an hour earlier. To our surprise, Eddie Garcia also arrived just a few minutes after. The press con itself started one hour late, but Manoy was gracious throughout, gamely answering questions and posing for photographs.)

He also avoided complaining or critiquing his workmates, preferring instead to follow his directors’ instructions and doing his very best, however small the role is. As a director, he refrained from reprimanding his cast and crew, and instead focused on getting everyone’s job done, and done right. Perhaps more than the awards he has received, his fellow film workers now remember him more for his grace, his chivalry and his humility. It is not surprising then that in an industry rife with rivalry and politicking, Eddie Garcia has virtually no critics or enemies.

Until the very end, he believed that he should never retire, preferring to work for as long as his health permitted. We lost him, yes, while doing what he loved best, in an accident that he did not deserve. Who knows how many more films and TV shows he could have done. How many more awards he could have won. How many more audiences would have looked forward to his formidable performances and Instagrammable one-liners.

And in his passing, we have lost an even bigger star than the film industry’s kings and queens. A true legend in his own right whose body of work has transcended three or four generations of movie audiences.

Because however the kings and queens of cinema come and go, there can only be one Manoy.

MOVIE REVIEW: Ang Larawan (2017)

Athanasius of Alexandria was a bishop in early Christianity. Among others, he is known for his efforts to combat the teachings of Arianism, a popular school of Christian thought which was gaining ground as its teachings appealed to the son of the late Emperor Constantine.

Despite this endorsement by the Emperor’s son, Athanasius held his ground and continued to attack what he believed was a dangerous ideology that compromised sacred doctrine. He was relentlessly pursued by his enemies and survived five exiles and six attempts against his life.

For his firm resolve against popular sentiment, he was given a moniker which also served as his epitaph:

Athanasius against the world
ATHANASIUS CONTRA MUNDUM.

Directed by Loy Arcenas, Ang Larawan is the story of two sisters left alone in their old home to take care of their aging father and the painting he made for them. It is a family drama wrapped in the mediums of musical film and period film, and also serves as a political statement on the relationship of art and the world it lives in. Larawan boasts of an impressive list of cast members that, despite the film’s limitations, gives strong, memorable performances that will be remembered long after the current edition of the Metro Manila Film Festival has gone.

That Larawan came from a pedigree of well-known cultural figures cannot be denied. It is an adaptation of Nick Joaquin’s first play, A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino. Portrait was first staged by Lamberto Avellana (starring his wife Daisy Hontiveros-Avellana as Candida), who also directed its first film adaptation in 1965 (also starring Daisy). It has also been translated into Filipino by other writers including Bienvenido Lumbrera. Rolando Tinio wrote another Filipino adaptation for the musical Ang Larawan (with music by Ryan Cayabyab), which he also directed, as part of the conditions Nick Joaquin imposed on the producers when they approached him for the project). All of them were appointed to the Order of National Artists of the Philippines except for Cayabyab (who is often touted as a potential candidate to the Order).

As in Portrait, Larawan revolves around the story of Candida Marasigan (Joanna Ampil, in her first film), her sister Paula Marasigan (Rachel Alejandro) and the painting that their father Don Lorenzo made for them. Most of the story happens within the stately, if decaying, Marasigan household during the months leading up to the Second World War, with the eponymous painting looming over them as a dark specter. The painting has become a cause celebre as it attracted the attention of neighbors, passersby and poseurs who often visited the house more for the painting than its residents. Among their visitors, one October, is an old family friend, Bitoy Camacho (Sandino Martin), a newspaper reporter who was also meaning to write a story about the painting.

Bitoy discovers that the sisters struggle to make ends meet: their only means of subsistence are the handouts begrudgingly given to them by their elder siblings Manolo (Noni Buencamino) and Pepang (Menchu Lauchengco), and the rent income from their sole tenant Tony Javier (Paulo Avelino), a lecherous pianist working at a bodabil. The Marasigan sisters were often pressured by would-be buyers to part with their painting, with tempting prices that could secure their future. Yet, for ideological and personal reasons, they refused to sell their painting (or the house), and not even their father’s close friend Senator Perico (Robert Arevalo) could convince them.

Rachel Alejandro (Paula) and Joanna Ampil (Candida) in ANG LARAWAN.

Part of the sisters’ reluctance to part with the painting and the house is their inability to reconcile themselves and their idealism with the world. They hang on to their cherished belief, to their Ideal, that no amount of money can compensate for the lasting pleasure that Art can give them, and that no other people in the world can understand them but fellow artists. And as members of this exclusive club, they see themselves as the vanguards, the standard-bearers, of the old traditions that they want to live on. We against the world. Contra mundum. It is this stubborn belief that moves them to hang on to their father’s last legacy, the Retrato del artista como Filipino, as an icon of this credo. Don Perico, a former poet who they thought has sold out, tempers this with one of the most memorable lines in the film: Hindi simple ang buhay katulad ng sining (Life is not as simple as art). The pursuit of the arts is edifying, but in order for the arts to survive it must also (learn how to) thrive in—and despite—the world. And with patience, both can coexist: one need not look beyond Larawan’s original librettist Rolando Tinio (who has worked on both film and theater) and composer Ryan Cayabyab (who was able to write and publish both pop songs and personal artistic compositions).

And yet, throughout Larawan, we never see the controversial portrait in its entirety, only a few hints here and there. (In contrast, the picture is never seen even in the play; it is placed in the figurative Fourth Wall, which lets the audience look into each character’s expressions closely.) The painting is stark and bleak: a double self-portrait of Don Lorenzo as Aeneas and his father Anchises, and behind them is the destruction of Troy. That image alone, deliberately selected by Joaquin in Portrait, captures the central issues that dominate Candida and Paula’s thoughts: the downfall of a gilded age; a man’s pride that became his fall from grace, and the burden that was his legacy to his children. It is these same issues that Candida and Paula struggle with, a great conflict that they have learned to accept in time.

The film is without its flaws, often gravitating towards long monologues and discourses that hold the story back from moving forward, yet feel incomplete at times. This is not the filmmakers’ fault, as this can be attributed to the nature of their source material, which reads more like a closet drama, if not a novel or essay. When Joaquin completed his draft, his sister, who was a theater actress, thought Portrait was “undramatizable”; the opening monologue alone by Bitoy runs nearly two and a half pages single-spaced. Lamberto Avellana sought Joaquin’s permission to compress Portrait for its theatrical run, as did Rolando Tinio when he adapted it into Ang Larawan the stage musical. (Joaquin permitted both revisions.) The current film is itself a shortened version of the stage musical, which runs for over three hours.

Inevitably, adaptations lose the details that made Portrait an engaging read, and to their credit the filmmakers have tried, sincerely, to preserve Joaquin’s vision as much as they can. The attention to detail is stunning, from the intricate furniture in the Marasigan ancestral home down to the personal accessories of the La Naval devotees. (Even the image of the La Naval was borrowed from the Sto. Domingo Church.) The music captures the spirit of the Roaring Forties in the throes of the Second World War, as well as mines the emotions of Candida and Paula (whose singing were, as envisioned by Tinio, intended to be the most beautiful among all singing parts).

More importantly, the actors and actresses of Larawan deliver solid acting that by itself is worth the price of the admission ticket. Joanna Ampil, in her first film, has delivered the strongest performance in Larawan. Her performance at the end of Act 1 (the blackout scene) alone is heart-rending, a cry that stays with you for the rest of the movie. Rachel Alejandro, reprising the same role she played during Larawan’s theatrical run in the 90s, is sweet but vulnerable. The rest of the cast delivers just as well that even the cameo appearances during Act 3 are memorable, too. Whether the MMFF Jury will feel the same and honor these performances remains to be seen (as of this writing) but, awards or no awards, Larawan’s ensemble need no further validation than the merits of their own art.

For all its shortcomings, Larawan is a film made with a loving dedication to its writer’s vision: to remember and to sing, that is my vocation. Weeks before the 2017 MMFF started, Larawan is the only film in my must-see list; I hope you will give it space for yours, too.

Postscript: At the 2017 Metro Manila Film Festival Gabi ng Parangal (December 27, 2017), “Ang Larawan” garnered 6 awards:

  • Best in Production Design
  • Best Musical Score (for Ryan Cayabyab)
  • Gatpuno Antonio J. Villegas Cultural Award
  • Posthumous Special Jury Prize for Nick Joaquin
  • Best Actress (for Joanna Ampil)
  • and Best Picture

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MOVIE REVIEW: Coco (2017)

Written by Paolo and Marie Barazon

Memory—both the act of remembering someone, and the moments associated with that person—is integral to the plot of many Pixar films, a crucial element that drives the story and anchors the emotional connection between the audience and the film. Among others:

  • Some of the toys in Toy Story 2 and 3 (including its main character Woody) deal with reminiscences of certain toys and their former owners, as well their fears of being forgotten.
  • The unremarkable but resourceful Syndrome (in The Incredibles) harbors a deep-seated resentment that drove his hatred for Mr. Incredible.
  • In Cars, the residents basks in nostalgia for the old glory days of Radiator Springs, when the town was a favorite pit stop for travelers along the famed Route 66.
  • UP opens with a widely-acclaimed montage of the memories Carl Fredricksen has with his late wife Ellie; the rest of the film shows how Carl worked to fulfill the one wish that Ellie never got to achieve. Its antagonist, Charles Muntz, also dreams of making a big comeback from the scandal that destroyed his career as an explorer.
  • The stunning climax of Ratatouille hinges on an old remembrance by the critic Anton Ego, which upends everything that people know about his notoriously picky character. The memory of a celebrated chef (and the object of Ego’s revulsion) is commemorated in video clips, cookbooks and even as a hovering spirit.
  • Bing Bong (Inside Out) pines for the days when Riley remembers him, her imaginary friend, and plays with him, even as she is no longer the little kid he knew.
  • Arlo in The Good Dinosaur feels responsible for the loss of his father, whom he misses, and struggles to go out in the world under his shadow.
  • And in Finding Dory, Dory struggles with memory loss, which she needs to overcome in order to be reunited with her parents.

It’s not surprising, then, that Coco also explores the topic of memory. Set during the vibrant Mexican feast of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), the film follows the adventures of young Miguel Rivera, a teenage boy in a family of shoemakers. The occasion is very familiar to Filipino audiences: undas in the Philippines resembles the vibrant (if macabre) celebration of Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos (both November 1) and right from the start the film already establishes it’s main theme, remembering those who have departed.

He dreams of following the footsteps of his idol Ernesto de la Cruz, Mexico’s greatest singer, but because his family has forbidden music in their household and disallows him to join the talent show in their town’s plaza mayor, Miguel is forced to steal his idol’s guitar from his mausoleum. This unleashes a curse which transports him to the land of the dead; there, he meets his deceased ancestors (as well as an out-and-about Hector, who risks eternal death once his only daughter completely forgets about him), and he discovers the painful memories that his living relatives did not want him to learn.

In Coco, the afterlife is depicted as colorful as the living world, just as how the departed’s loved ones would decorate their altars in their memory. The land of the dead is portrayed as a place full of energy, teeming with lush, vibrant colors just as it were in the land of the living. We couldn’t help but observe how the younger members of the audience (our little son included) got astounded looking at the scenes—never mind that they were looking at a fictitious rendition of the afterlife, a topic that is probably yet behind their comprehension. The land of the dead is never shown as a dark, dreary place, but an elysium whose life is dependent on how the living remember the ones who left this life. (This concept is a conceit that drives an important plot point.)

Complementing the stunning visuals are the energetic mariachi and folk music, which gives the film a strong Mexican character. The films makes effective use of native music that makes an otherwise drab story alive and breathing (although some of the songs with Spanish lyrics don’t have subtitles). Especially notable is the performances of Anthony Gonzalez (Miguel), who displayed a skillful and spiritual rendition of musical numbers that is probably beyond his age. Under Gonzalez’ voice, Miguel finds his meaning only when he expresses himself through music: his thoughts, feelings and memories. Just as touching is his performance of the movie’s main theme song, Remember Me, a simple lullabye about separation that could land Coco an Oscar nomination and is worthy of inclusion in Disney’s canon of movie theme songs.

As with any Pixar film, Coco does not shy away from jabs at contemporary social and political issues in a way that resonates with the audience. Border tensions between the US (the film’s country of origin) and Mexico (the film’s settings) are parodied right in the first act, notably when Hector gets denied passage to the land of the living on Dia de los Muertes as an “undocumented” dead person. It also raises the question of how we relate to the cult of celebrity, and with how the memories of long-departed personalities are being remembered and commemorated, a point that is highlighted as the back story of Ernesto de la Cruz is exposed in the story.

While watching Coco is an enjoyable experience, it risks being compared with its predecessors, especially on the topic of memory. To a fault, it borrows liberally from UP and Ratatouille, including in its treatment of the celebrity cult and in how its characters deal with loss. It even quotes a line in UP almost verbatim (“I’m going to Paradise Falls if it kills me!” / “I’m going to Plaza Mayor if it kills me!”). There isn’t really a lot of original ideas in Coco that hasn’t been tackled in other Pixar films, but only differs in how it renders these ideas, and on that note we will not say more.

These similarities, however, do not detract from the film’s central theme. We have witnessed how relatives and friends have lost loved ones in recent months, and so watching the film feels like a catharsis rather than a reliving of the pain of losing someone we love. If any, Coco reminds us that the ones who left this life are never far away for as long as we hold them in our hearts.

MOVIE REVIEW: 100 Tula para kay Stella (2017) [2 of 2]

Never seek to tell thy love, 
Love that never told can be; 
For the gentle wind does move 
Silently, invisibly.
I told my love, I told my love 
I told her all my heart; 
Trembling, cold, in ghastly fears,
Ah! she doth depart.
Soon as she was gone from me, 
A traveller came by; 
Silently, invisibly, 

He took her with a sigh.

 

— William Blake, “Never Seek to Tell Thy Love” (1863)

100 Tula Para Kay Stella follows the story of Fidel (JC Santos), a college student, who enamored of Stella (Bela Padilla), a fellow Psychology major and an aspiring musician. Impeded by an unspecified speech defect, he sought to express his feelings in juvenile, idealistic quatrains, hoping to complete a hundred of them and even more so in getting the strength to present it to Stella.

Fidel’s secret desire is astronomical, however, like that of a young child wishing to touch (or to be one with) a stars. Fidel is withdrawn, shy and awkward, perhaps as a result of his fears of being rejected by society because of his disability. Stella, on the other hand, has high ambitions; she herself wants to be a (rock) star like Avril Lavigne, and uses every opportunity to get closer to her dreams in order to escape the dreary and lonely life she was living with her sisters since being orphaned by both parents. Yet, despite these differences, Fidel remains faithful to his one love, enduring her every whims and patiently waiting for her (even as Stella sleeps with an ex-boyfriend in order to get connected to his music-video director).

Said to be based on a youthful episode in the life of its director (John Paul Laxamana), 100 Tula is mostly set near Mount Arayat in Pampanga, visible yet distant. And like Mount Arayat, Stella remains an omnipresent character throughout the film: always near (even when you don’t see her), but always far (even when she’s there). We follow the story of Fidel, but really, we see more of Stella in his thoughts and words: the Romantic Ideal which is never fated to be his. Although writing quatrains and verses for a loved one is deeply rooted in Filipino culture (think as early as Francisco Balagtas writing Kay Selya, which was written when he was incarcerated), Fidel fails to make his poetry transcend his basest feelings (if not Neruda, who also wrote 100 Sonnets of Love), partly because he latches onto his limerence and also because he fails to overcome his fears and express himself in more concrete ways than just poetry. (Even Stella herself admitted from the start that she was willing to overlook his stuttering.)

Meanwhile, Fidel stands as a mute (yet unwitting) witness to Stella’s decline, even after helping whether with her academics or with finding a place to stay the night. Externally, Stella tries to project herself as a strong, determined woman. But she also fails to understand that it was here insistent escapism, her persistent desire to chase the limelight, was the one thing hindering her dreams. Beneath her shell, she, too, is unable to express her true feelings with sincerity. She is self-aware of the potency of her beauty, of how her being the object of every men’s desire can also cause their downfall and hers (even the sparse, minimalistic music that is set in most of Stella’s scenes is enchanting, beguiling and terrifying at the same time). And when that one person who sees through her real self—Fidel—reaches out to her, she walks away, afraid of all possibilities (both good and bad) that might have been had she relented and surrendered herself to him.

By the movie’s climax at the other side of Mount Arayat, Fidel and Stella have come to confront each other with a lot of introspection, and even more regrets. JC Santos and Bela Padilla delivers what is probably the movie’s best scene: every word they say to each other is weighed by things left unsaid, things they can only now see clearly because of circumstances they could have prevented or resolved, but didn’t. 100 Tula Para Kay Stella is a wistful tale of an old love, a bittersweet reminder of missed opportunities and might-have-beens.

 

MOVIE REVIEW: Kita Kita (2017)

Kita Kita is the story between Lea (Alessandra de Rossi), a Pinay tour guide based in Japan who is recovering from an inexplicably long “temporary” blindness that was caused by a heartbreak; and Tonyo (Empoy Marquez), the kabayan who lives across her house and pursues her patiently. Together, they explore tourist spots in and around Sapporo, places that were already familiar to Lea but experienced differently by her because of the many memories that she made with Tonyo, who promised “I will be your eyes” throughout their journey. The result is a tender, if bittersweet, story of a “blind” people who helped each other “see” the world and their hearts in cheerful pastel colors.

Let me start outright that the movie is far from being ideal. There is a lot in this movie that was not supposed to work. The editing and the ordering of the sequence seems jarring at places, the third act losing all the warm and fuzzy feeling that was built up to the final moments of the second act. The “countdown” sequences sometimes appear contrived, as another stab at the fashionable spoken-word poetry artform. There are important elements (like certain props or costumes) that figure prominently in the movie but which presence cannot be explained. More importantly, many people on social media have already pointed out their problems with the movie’s conceit, about Lea’s relationship with a stalker she barely knew and who seemed to take advantage of her disability…never mind that the film was directed by a woman (Sigrid Andrea P. Bernardo) who, under the usual circumstances (and especially in the United States of America), would have already called the police.

And yet, it works, because Bernardo (or, rather, Marquez) imagines Tonyo as less of a psychopathic stalker, but more of that cultural trope in Philippine film and culture, the masugid na manliligaw (persistent suitor), always persistent—yes, a bit irritating—but still deferent to the object of his desires. (Think , for instance, of Michael V. pursuing Lara Morena in “Sinaktan Mo ang Puso Ko” [Octoarts Films, 1998], but without the histrionics and the caricature and the obsession.) While Tonyo himself is self-aware of his predicament, he still keeps himself within distance, so near yet so far from Lea. And because he knows his place, once Lea opens up to him little by little, Tonyo wins her heart and takes it with him, even in muted moments of her solitude. In Kita Kita, Marquez proves that he is more than just the sidekick or the buffoon in comedy films or TV shows; he is the charming, if unideal or unassuming, suitor who can sweep Lea and the female members of the audience to their feet. He has also demonstrated his mastery of comedic acting, even throwing de Rossi off-character and giggling in a few scenes that the filmmakers claimed were improvised.

Complementing Marquez’ performance is the understated delivery by the lithe Alessandra de Rossi, who dominates the film’s screen time. In Kita Kita, the solitary Lea is tender and helpless, but too vulnerable, afraid (or rather unwilling) to ask for help (with an “SOS” door sign for her thought bubble). Initially impatient at Tonyo’s pursuit like anyone who is nililigawan (being courted), she mellows down and follows along Tonyo’s beat, their feet moving along the same dance (and even soaked together in a foot spa). de Rossi draws the audience inside places that cannot be seen—inside her heart—and this allows her to take the audience for a ride, from sweet little moments to her melancholic musings. Whatever shortcomings this film may have are overshadowed by Marquez and de Rossi’s carefree and enjoyable performance.

Marquez’ and de Rossi’s performances also work not just because of what they did in the film, but in what they (and the film) did not do. It’s interesting to note that on its second week, Kita Kita was showing along with another romcom (Finally Found Someone) and yet—at least in my experience—the seats for the former were already sold out much faster than the latter, even hours before our selected time slot. And after seeing the film, we understand why audiences would like to come back for more. There is little to none of the cliches that we’ve associated with hugot films: the self-referential lines that talk of sweeping generalities about the experience of love or heartbreaks rather than the character’s experience themselves (e.g. “bakit ganon, kapag nagmamahal ka….?”, “bakit ganun yung mga taong minamahal natin….?”), lines that sound good on film but you never really hear people say in real life; the lead characters who mope as a form of self-indulgence; the requisite supporting characters whose primary role is to feed the main characters’ self-indulgence; and the almost-religious insistence to a happy ending (or at least a near-happy ending). Kita Kita takes the risk of eschewing most these conventions, and instead of feeding the characters cheesy lines and unnecessary support characters, Bernardo lets Lea and Tonyo enjoy themselves, with each sequence give them space for their characters to grow. It is easy to see that Marquez and de Rossi enjoyed each other’s company in making the film, and we have also seen how the audience enjoyed watching the film as well.

The result is that the film feels less of a typical Filipino romcom or (as radio anchor MJ Felipe claims in his DZMM radio show) a Koreanovela, but more of a contemporary Japanese romance, dialogues, scenery and all. For all its shortcomings, Kita Kita feels like a fresh whiff of flowers in springtime, a lighthearted film without the trappings of the conventional hugot movie, and whose memory will linger on like a dance waiting to be danced again and again.

OPINION: Cooling down on the MTRCB

By now, everyone has been talking about how the MTRCB gave an inexplicable R-18 rating for the wide release of 2 Cool 2 Be Forgotten. People thought that its homosexual themes may have prompted the Board to recommend it only for adult audiences. That would be fine…except that when it screened at the Cinema One Originals film festival, it got a much lower rating of R-13 (from the Film Development Council of the Philippines, since the fest does not need to MTRCB inteference if it is endorsed by the former).

In the film’s permit, the MTRCB reviewers cited the following reasons for granting an R-18 rating for the film:

Psychologically disturbing for minor to watch as the film contains very mature theme, sexual content, nudity and alcohol abuse.
The film incites parricide/murder and suicide as only way out. No redeeming social value.
With the foregoing, the film merits an R-18 classification.

On the same week that 2 Cool opened in select cinemas (mostly in Metro Manila), Death Note: Light Up the New World was also released. The remarks for the Death Note movie consist of just one sentence:

The film contains themes and scenes of random deaths, up close and multiple long arm shots, occult, and good versus evil that require a restricted audience of 13 years of age and up.

For these reasons, Death Note got an R-13 rating.

Yes, you read it right. A foreign action film that has plenty of violent scenes of people trying to kill or maim each other was judged to be appropriate for viewing by high school students, more so than a local movie about three teenagers grappling with their sexuality and whose only “violent” scene consists of merely a character talking about a murder.

But that’s not all. As of this writing, the following films (shown in 2017) containing acts of violence were given more lenient ratings, too:

  • XXX: Return of Xander Cage – PG
  • Patriots Day – R-13
  • The Great Wall – PG
  • Kung Fu Yoga – PG
  • John Wick 2 – R-16
  • Hacksaw Ridge – R-16
  • Fist Fight – R-13
  • Logan – R-16
    (Source)

And for what it’s worth, a film that didn’t have a real murder scene was cited for “murder” and slapped an R-18.

So if violence was not the main reason for 2 Cool‘s R-18 rating, was it its homosexuality theme? That could be one possible explanation…until you remember that the MTRCB was also the same agency where a film depicting a gay teenager’s infatuation with a policeman was rated PG-13 (Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros); a zombie comedy movie with a straight man who was cursed to turn gay was deemed suitable for children accompanied by their parents (Zombadings 1: Patayin sa Shokot si Remington, rated PG); and a Star Cinema film with John Lloyd Cruz and Luis Manzano kissing on screen for a few seconds was also rated PG (In My Life). Those on social media who defended the MTRCB’s R-18 rating say that movies about gay people alone could really trigger the Board to give any film an R-18 rating (because apparently, hey, we don’t want kids to grow up gay), but as we have seen, this was not always the case.

So what gives?

A Board of Censors in Everything But Name

2 Cool was reviewed by Board members Alexis Lumbatan, Catherine Cabuga, Cherry Ann Espion, Eric Anthony Mallonga, and Maria Consoliza Laguardia. If the last name rings a bell, this is because Laguardia was the former Chairperson of the MTRCB, an appointee of former President (and now Pampanga representative) Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. We don’t know the role she played in giving 2 Cool an R-18 rating, but it shouldn’t probably surprise anyone if she turned out to be the most conservative member in that committee. As MTRCB chair, she gave The Da Vinci Code an R-18 on religious grounds, almost banned the film Priest from ever screening because of how priests were negatively depicted, slapped a triple-X rating on a documentary about former President Joseph Estrada, and even attempted to interfere with the censorship-free environment of the UP Film Center over a controversial rape scene in the film Aurora (starring Rosanna Roces).

Laguardia was not the only conservative chairperson of the MTRCB. People may remember the likes of Manoling Morato, Henrietta Mendez and National Artist for Literature Alejandro Roces, to name just a few, and how they butted heads with film makers and producers over the classification of their films. For instance, The Last Temptation of Christ was banned from public exhibition under Morato’s term (although, curiously, you can buy the same film in video stores today). Mendez demanded that a breast exposure and a sex scene be cut out of Schindler’s List or risk being banned for public viewing, never mind that those scenes lasted a little less than a minute or two (out of its three hour running time). Roces succeeded Nick Tiongson at the helm of the Board, supported Arroyo’s decision to pull out Jose Javier Reyes’ “pornographic” movie Live Show from theaters and even proposed that film directors should be professionally licensed if only to ensure they will never produce pornographic films. Although the Board has been headed by more liberal (or, for some, permissive) chairpersons like Tiongson, Armida Siguion-Reyna and Grace Poe, the classification board has often been regarded as a bastion of conservatism, wielding its regulatory powers like a censorship body in everything except in name.

For years, the MTRCB has denied being a board of censors, reiterating that their mandate, under the law, is to “regulate and classify motion pictures, television programs, and publicity materials”. But in fact, the law that created the MTRCB (Presidential Decree n. 1986) still affirms that the Board retains the power to censor—to suppress parts, or to prevent the exhibition of—films and television shows: Section 3 (paragraph i), empowers the Board to prosecute violators “of anti-trust, obscenity, censorship and other laws pertinent to the movie and television industry”.

One can argue that in exceptional circumstances, the MTRCB still needs to wield its power of censorship, like in the case of films that glorify criminals, or movies that incite subversion or rebellion, or films that encourage people to invest and sell illegal drugs (and these exceptional circumstances are, indeed, listed down in PD 1986). But this has not prevented critics from calling out the MTRCB for wielding this power over films that are perceived to be critical of the administration, such as the case with Lino Brocka’s Ora Pro Nobis during the first Aquino regime. (The film got around the censorship issue by premiering at the Cannes Film Festival.)

A closer look at MTRCB ratings

Supporters of MTRCB’s regulatory powers (or should I insist, censorship?) also reiterate that as a government agency, the Board acts as a safeguard of public morals, and therefore needs the authority to regulate movies and TV shows that Filipinos can watch, especially younger audiences. On its website, the MTRCB makes it very clear that it’s also part of their mandate to enact the following:

  • Promote and protect the family, the youth, the disabled, and other vulnerable sectors of the society in the context of media and entertainment
  • Empower the Filipino family, particularly parents and at the grassroots level, such that family members are able to evaluate and intelligently choose media and entertainment content
  • Promote a value-based media and entertainment culture

And to determine whether a film is suitable for younger audiences or for an older age group, the MTRCB maintains its own guidelines to classify films and TV shows. The current version, MTRCB Memorandum Circular No. 08-2012, identifies five classes for motion pictures: G, PG, R-13, R-16 and R-18. (A sixth classification, X, is reserved for films that are deemed unsuitable for public exhibition, and is practically rare you can count how many times it’s given in a two- or three-year period by the fingers of one hand.) By law, the guidelines must apply to all films and not, as an online commenter erroneously allege, on a case-to-case basis.

The guidelines were written in plain language that can be understood by parents. Each classification is defined in Chapter III of the MC, and are differentiated by seven restricting factors: theme, language, nudity, sex, violence, horror and drugs. As you move away from “G” in the classification scale, the amount of restricted content that can be shown also increases.

For instance, a G-rated film can contain “mild, brief [and] infrequent” violence that is “unlikely to cause undue anxiety or fear to young children.” A PG film, on the other hand, can have “minimal” violent scenes that are neither graphic nor gratuitous. And so on and so forth, until we get to R-18, where “there are no restrictions on the depiction of violence except that…it is justified by the context, narrative or character development”. With such a discretely defined classification system, it would appear that the MTRCB’s task of rating films would be as easy as finding the best fit for a film depending on one or a few matching criteria.

All Films Are Equal, But Some Are More Equal Than Others

— Except that it’s not, and sometimes for inexplicable reasons.

We started this article by showing how inconsistent the rating for 2 Cool was, so let me explain this through another film.

In the United States, the Motion Picture Association of America (or MPAA, the MTRCB’s American counterpart) gave the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast a rating of Parental Guidance, “for some action violence, peril and frightening images”. If the original (1991) animated version’s depiction of the Beast and also of the violent mob fight scenes near the end scared or terrified young audiences at the time, what more now that the entire film was remade with real (and virtual) characters and weapons.

Yet here in the Philippines, the MTRCB gave the same film a rating of G (and to quote in full, the violence criteria for G-rated movies is “The depiction of any violence must be mild, brief, infrequent, and unlikely to cause undue anxiety or fear to young children.”). In the film permit for Beauty and the Beast, the MTRCB said:

This live-version shows some fidelity and innovative [sic] from the successful Disney animation. It is acceptable for a General Audience.

Apparently, the film is not violent or scary enough for Filipino kids—does it mean Filipino kids don’t get scared as much as American kids? #pinoypride—and our local censors don’t see it in the same light as their American counterparts do. Never mind that the film shows Gaston shooting the Beast in full view, not just once but twice.

Or maybe the G rating was motivated not (just) by the contents of the film, but also by who made the film. After all, Disney feature films are family-friendly fare, and it is unimaginable that the Board would prevent kids from watching the latest Disney Princess film (including Beauty and the Beast). But if this were the case, would that also be tantamount to saying that some MTRCB standards apply favorably to others, while other films—especially independently-produced films—get the PG/R treatment? The MTRCB rating guidelines is supposed to apply to all films regardless of who made the movie. But in this case, just because the film happened to carry the Disney label, it seems that giving it a rating higher than G is out of the question.

(Also good examples are the Harry Potter and Transformers movie series having G rating despite their themes and, get it, violence.)

A movie where people get shot in close range with blood spilling from its victims deserve a PG or stronger rating, regardless of whether it’s a Cinemalaya suspense/thriller or a Marvel superhero movie or, in the case of television, the latest adventures of PO3 Cardo Dalisay in the TV adaptation of FPJ: Ang Probinsyano. A film where characters use even the mildest sexually suggestive language should receive an R-13 (or higher) rating and not PG, irrespective of whether that character is Christian Grey or Ina Montecillo or Praybeyt Benjamin—never mind if the films have children on the cast—or Mace Castillo. And yet, it seems, the same inequality that has plagued the distribution of foreign vs. local films (or mainstream/big studio films vs. independently-produced films) also exists in the matter of classification.

(We have not even considered the case that the G rating was probably driven by financial motives as well; that is, giving it a G rating will be more profitable in cinemas that are averse with PG or even R ratings. While this may be a valid, if somewhat off-tangent, reason—that is a point that is best tackled in a discussion about the state of film distribution in the Philippines.)

Not only is there a problem with how the MTRCB interprets its guidelines, there is also the problem of what the Board says when it hands down its ratings. Grammatical lapses aside, the MTRCB also fell short of giving an endorsement of “Beauty and the Beast” in emphasizing the “fidelity and innovative [sic] from the successful Disney animation”, as if those qualities were part of the criteria for giving films a G rating. It is one thing to justify a rating (e.g. “This film is rated PG for some mild violence”), but it is another thing to use that same government permit—funded by taxpayers’ money—to compliment a film as if the Board members rating the film were writing a consumer review. Film writer and reviewer Philbert Dy provided a notorious example of this, in the permit for a local romcom, upper case letters and all:

A VERY INSPIRING FILM!
Suitable for all audiences.

I don’t take issue with the MTRCB reviewers enjoying the movie. If that film truly made them inspired, then good for them. However, I take issue with having to put those judgments in an official government permit. The mandate of an MTRCB board member is to review and classify films according to the extent permitted by the law, but it is not their job, it is not incumbent on them, to express their personal opinions on the films that they classify. That is for the audiences to decide, not for a committee of three to five MTRCB board members.

At least, the remarks for Death Note: Light Up the New World, which premiered on the same week as 2 Cool, were more restrained and avoided opinionated statements (written by a committee that includes, among others, Mocha Uson):

The film contains themes and scenes of random deaths, up close and multiple long arm shots, occult, and good versus evil that require a restricted audience of 13 years of age and up.

By Whose Standards?

Then there’s the matter of themes. In the absence of any specific factor (e.g. amount of violence or nudity) that might affect a film’s classification, the MTRCB criteria also consider the movie’s theme according to what is acceptable for each age group. As the age classification moves up from G to R-18, the definition gets less and less specific:

G
The film must contain themes that are appropriate for all audiences. It should not contain violence, threat, abuse, horror, or other themes that may cause fear or disturbance to a young child’s mind. It should promote positive values.

PG
The film may contain themes that require parental supervision and guidance, but the treatment shall nonetheless be appropriate for children below thirteen (13) years of age.
The film should not promote any dangerous, violent, discriminatory, or otherwise offensive behavior or attitude.
The film should contain redeeming social values.

R-13
The film may contain mature themes; provided that the treatment of any of these themes is suitable for teenagers above thirteen (13) years of age.
The film shall not gratuitously promote or encourage any dangerous, violent, discriminatory, or otherwise offensive behavior or attitude.
The film must contain social redeeming values

R-16
There are no restrictions on themes; provided that the treatment is appropriate for viewers who are at ieast sixteen (16) years of age.

R-18
There are no restrictions on themes and their treatment

One of the comments made by the Board for 2 Cool was that the film has “no redeeming social values.” This obviously refers to the original rating (R-13) that the film received during the Cinema One Originals film festival. But what does the MTRCB mean exactly when they talk of “social redeeming values”? The definition of this phrase does not appear anywhere in MC 08-2012. Nor does “positive values”. In the matter of themes, the guidelines are so open-ended that it will be up to the Board’s judgment call to decide what kind of themes would fall under positive or socially-redeeming values. Which also means, it’s not only up to each Board member’s discretion, but also up to whatever system of morality they believe in, even if such moral codes are discriminatory. The other side of this is: whose standards of values or morals is the MTRCB talking about? Just by reading these guidelines, how would you know if one theme is appropriate for a 13 year old viewer, a 16 year old viewer and an 18 year old viewer? On this note, the guidelines are silent, and this makes it open to interpretation, even personal ones.

Some of the online criticisms I’ve read about the MTRCB’s decision to give an R-18 rating for 2 Cool stem from contradictions between what the MTRCB said in its permit and what was on the film itself. The only murder scene it has was not a depiction of murder, but only a mention of one (as mentioned earlier). The only nudity it shows is a very brief exposure of the buttocks in a dim location, not even an extended scene with frontal nudity. Nor does the film promote behavior that is “dangerous, violent, discriminatory, or otherwise offensive behavior or attitude.” (Unless, perhaps, there was one board member that we don’t know who is offended by gay scenes on the silver screen.) This led to speculations that the film was really given an R-18 rating because of homosexuality. But if that were the case, does a film that deals with homosexuality as a theme really deserve an automatic R-16 (or R-18) rating, just for being there in the film? Again, how then would someone account for Maximo Oliveros and In My Life, which dealt with homosexuality but were both rated PG?

In the case of Higanti (which opened this week), the Board members—which also included Laguardia—said:

There are some sexual understones [sic], extra marital [sic] affairs, media brutality, impolite words and fleeting scenes of drug use. However, R-13 classification is recommended in the film’s entirety. Strong family values, strength in self-worth, belief in God are all imparted in the midst of trials and struggles.

Like how the remarks for 2 Cool began, the Higanti committee (with Laguardia as one of its members) decided to mention the specific criteria that led them to award the movie an R-13 rating. However, it did not stop there: just like how they emphasized that 2 Cool has “no social redeeming values”, here they made it a point to mention specific items, especially “belief in God”, that made the film worthy of the attention of audiences as young as 13 years old. Because, hey, this film has moral lessons that’s just right for their age group, so let’s have them watch it. In that sense, the Board has crossed a line from being a mere ratings/censorship board, it also acts as a guardian of (religious) morality, a function that is not part of their mandate as a regulatory body.

Under that premise, it seems that the best way to have a film receive a lower rating (and thus, access to cineplexes that would normally refuse to screen R-rated films) is to appeal to the moral sensibilities of the MTRCB, to a board which used to count members of the Roman Catholic clergy as its members. This is fine if all of our movie-going audiences were children…however, in time, children will grow up, too, and will need to put aside childish things. But when will the MTRCB learn to accept this?

New Directions

In the past few years, the MTRCB has emphasized the need for matalinong panonood that is, really, a glorified euphemism for promoting only child-friendly films. However, this mindset is very limiting not just for audiences who are faced with limited viewing choices (especially when local films are getting bumped off in favor of superhero blockbusters that were given G or PG ratings). It is also limiting for our filmmakers as well, who either have to compromise and make only G/PG films, or struggle to find—much less build—an audience in this environment where even the MTRCB is weaning adults into watching only G/PG films. But equating matalinong panonood with just G/PG films that kids can see conflates a movie’s classification with its quality. (Or sometimes, conflating the presence or absence of morals with quality.) If the MTRCB really wants to promote matalinong panonood, why shouldn’t it also promote meaningful and well-made films that are also intended for mature audiences? Why does the MTRCB always have to be condescending towards films that would be rated R-13 or higher and make it a point to discourage viewers from watching the films, and be lenient towards films that they give a G or PG rating (even if they don’t deserve the rating)? Can’t adults have matalinong panonood, too?

 

While the fact remains that the MTRCB does have censorship powers, it must disabuse itself of the notion that it has the power to make filmmakers and producers bend to the Board’s will. In the case of 2 Cool, the Board owes its filmmakers a transparent explanation as to why it gave a stricter rating on its second review, an action that is disputed not only by its filmmakers but also by the audiences who saw the movie during its festival run—this alone should have served as a wake up call for the MTRCB that it has not been very deliberate in rating films.

It must scrutinize films strictly according to the standards it promulgated, and not according to the personal opinions or tastes of its members, much less their moral codes. The standards should apply fairly to every film, irrespective of its distributor, producer or cast members. The remarks on every MTRCB permit must also state no more than the criteria that was used to determine a film’s rating, and should not include the personal impresssions or endorsements of its board members.

It should trust the audiences that they will be more scrutinizing and discriminating with the films that they want to see. The MTRCB then must avoid its patronizing attitude of treating adults like children, in thinking that all movies are meant for escapism or fantasizing. Cinema can be a mirror, a reflection of the audience’s reality and experience. And in life, not every experience receives a happy ending…and that’s okay. Watching these hard truths on the big screen does not necessarily trigger (say) a mass wave of depression—it gives audiences the space to ponder their own realities. MTRCB should open up this mirror, and not always hide it under the pretense of every film “needing” to have “redeeming social values”.

For further readingS:

MOVIE REVIEW: Miss Saigon 25th Anniversary Performance (2016)

To mark the silver anniversary of Miss Saigon’s, Cameron Mackintosh brings the musical to movie theaters in select countries, including the Philippines. It is an immersive experience that, despite the musical’s flaws, remains an enjoyable and energetic musical that appeals to mass audiences all over the world.

On the final days of the Vietnam War, the orphan Kim starts her first night at work at the girlie show operated by the pimp Tran Van Dinh (who likes to call himself “The Engineer”),. There she meets, and spends the night, with Chris, an American marine who was already disillusioned with the War. After they make love, Kim asks Chris to take her with him to America, which he agrees to. A few days, the city of Saigon falls, and as the entire American contingent flees the city, Kim is left behind. The rest of the musical tells about how Kim sets out to find Chris and hoping (in vain) to experience a better life in America and to start a new life with Chris, which mirrors the story of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (one of the inspirations for Miss Saigon‘s plot).

Before continuing, let me be clear on one thing: despite its popularity (even to this day), Miss Saigon has not always received universal acclaim. Its 1989 production was hounded with controversy over the casting of caucasian actors for Asian roles (Jonathan Pryce for the Engineer; Keith Burns for Thuy), as well as concerns that Miss Saigon borders on exploitative theater. But more importantly, the original version of its songs were regarded as being inferior to its creator’s more acclaimed work, Les Miserables. It may be a case of something being lost in the translation–the book was written in French, and was translated into English by Richard Maltby–but even so the original English lyrics for some of the songs were corny and unremarkable at the least, unsubtle and awful at its worst, especially considering that they were written by the same team who wrote On My Own, I Have a Dream and One More Day.

Consider one of the first big moments of the musical, The Movie in My Mind (sung in the first few minutes of Act 1 by Gigi, the bar girl played by Rachelle Ann Go). In the original 1989 production, part of Gigi’s lyrics went like this:

The movie plays and plays;
the screen before me fills.
He takes me to New York,
he gives me dollar bills.
Our children laugh all day
and eat too much ice cream,
and life is like a dream….

which, given the melancholic mood of the song’s music, borders on the comical, naive even. It also did not reflect the intentions of Gigi’s monologue, which was supposed to be the desperate lament of a prostitute who got tired of being used by men over and over (hence, “plays and plays”).

To their credit, the creative team of Miss Saigon revised most of the lyric in subsequent productions. Some of the shallow lyrics have been written out, and even a few songs were replaced by new compositions (e.g. the lyrics of 1989’s It’s Her Or Me were rewritten into Now That I’ve Seen Her in the Broadway production, but has been completely eliminated and replaced by Maybe. With new music.)  More focus was also given to tighter characterizations of the main roles. So in the present version, Gigi’s monologue has become more wistful and resigned:

The movie plays and plays.
I’ll find my true romance.
He takes me to a place
Where I don’t have to dance.
Our children laugh all day…
But all that I’ve been through
Can’t make my dream come true….

Therefore, those who will be watching the 25th Anniversary Performance film will enjoy seeing an improved musical, a slightly better version than the original version (although not one that I would consider great). Some of the new words and dialogues also use stronger language; as mentioned in the previous article, this film is rated R-13 and is definitely not recommended for very young audiences. (There are also a good number of suggestive scenes and skimpy clothing on select scenes, which justifies the rating.)

One question that viewers might want to ask is how does watching this film compare to watching it in a theater. I have seen Miss Saigon at the Cultural Center of the Philippines in December 2000 (which, at the time, also featured Jon-jon Briones as the Engineer) and I can say that, as always, watching a theatrical production in person is better than watching it on film, much less on a video taken with a mobile phone. A lot of nuances are lost when movie audiences can only see parts of what’s going on stage (e.g. the sex tourists’ transactions in the Bangkok/What a Waste sequence). So while this film reintroduces Miss Saigon to Philippine viewers, it does not–and will not be able to–reproduce the same effect it had on the audiences who were seeing the musical in person. Laughing at punchlines with a live audience feels warmer and more organic than laughing along with a recording of theater goers laughing at the same scene

However, the Miss Saigon 25th Anniversary Performance film compensates for this lack of warmth with cinematic devices that give a deeper color to each actors’ expressions, showing details which theater goers turn may miss in turn. (There is even a better view of Chris and his fellow passengers from inside the helicopter at the famous Fall of Saigon sequence; in the theatrical production, audiences may not even see any passengers at all.) The solos and duets feel more intimate (you can notice the exact moment when Kim starts to tear up), and the expressions of every actor look more candid. The film, therefore, can be enjoyed regardless of where a person is sitting in the movie theater. Tighter editing has also eliminated any noticeable gaps during set changes (including the interval between Acts 1 and 2), which provides for a more immersive experience (except for the end credits, which do not come with additional scoring).

There are also plenty of strong performances from the main cast. Eva Noblezada’s Kim is tender and delicate, yet vulnerable to the machinations of the Engineer, despondent even from the revelations that unfolded in Act 2 instead of bitter. Alistair Brammer as Chris is earnest and sincere, whose light voice register resemble that of Simon Bowman’s in 1989. Jon-jon Briones is a cunning, calculating and manipulative Engineer, and therefore loathsome (which earned praises from Jonathan Pryce during the surprise appearance at the curtain call). Tamsin Carroll gives an empathic protrayal of Ellen, while Hugh Maynard’s John is frank and direct. Although they appear for shorter times than their fellow leading cast members, Kwang-ho Hong and Rachelle Ann Go delivered distinctive performances as the haughty, vindictive Thuy and the bitter, jaded Gigi (respectively). As a whole, the cast members have delivered very good performances, nailing subtle interpretations down to every single word. These performances, for me, are more important than any other aspect of the entire show, and would probably be the single reason why I would buy the DVD should it become available in our local record bars.

Miss Saigon 25th Anniversary live recording screens in cinemas on Nov 12 & 13

Miss Saigon the musical, for some Filipinos, has been a point of national pride.

On November 12 and 13, Miss Saigon 25th Anniversary Performance movie will have a limited release in the Philippines, which will also be a homecoming, at much more accessible venues (including select SM Cinemas in Northern Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao) at an affordable price.

Its leading actress, Lea Salonga, bagged an Olivier and a Tony (both a first for any Filipino) for her role. Many of the musical’s major characters were also created by Filipino cast members and, since then, a long list of Filipinos have been cast to different productions of Miss Saigon in other cities. For years before Miss Saigon‘s Manila production in 2000-2001 (which I had seen at the Cultural Center of the Philippines), cassette tape and CD recordings of the soundtrack sold well in record bars, with Pinoys memorizing the words and music of a musical they have yet to see; its songs can still be found in the playlists of karaoke machines, and TV variety shows do a Miss Saigon tribute from time to time. And 25 years since its premiere at the Drury Lane Theater in London, Miss Saigon still employs Filipinos in its current revival, led by Eva Noblezada (Kim), Rachelle Ann Go (Gigi) and Jon-jon Briones (The Engineer). It’s not an understatement, then, to say that for Filipinos, Miss Saigon is the only Broadway musical that they had only known.

But Miss Saigon is more than just a musical that happens to be intertwined with the careers of its Pinoy casts. It is also a tragic love story, a war story, and also a commentary on race and sexuality (albeit in a manner that some people have found controversial). In this article, we will look back at the origins of Miss Saigon the musical, as well as identify other works that inspired its creation. We will also gloss over major themes from the musical, which may help viewers appreciate Miss Saigon on its own merits and which may also help connect Miss Saigon better with Filipino audiences. (My review of the film itself [and the musical] will be published on November 12, 2016. As a result, I will avoid discussing important plot points, as well as refrain from making a commentary about the musical itself.)

ORIGINS AND INSPIRATIONS

A well-known anecdote about Miss Saigon‘s origins came from its writer, Claude-Michel Schoenberg. One morning, he noticed a magazine picture of a Vietnamese mother sending her daughter away. The daughter was leaving her mother behind, hoping to have a better life with her father in the United States. Schoenberg was struck by what he saw , realizing that mother and daughter may never see each other again. He called that moment “the ultimate sacrifice”, and resolved to use it as the premise for a new musical.

Because the photograph does not contain the complete story, Schoenberg and his collaborator Alain Boublil (music) decided to adapt important plot elements from Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly as the basis of their new musical. (Madama Butterfly‘s libretto was written by Puccini’s collaborators Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, who were also behind Puccini’s La Boheme; both Butterfly and Boheme are tragic love stories that are still staged in theaters and opera houses worldwide.)  The opera was adapted from a popular short story by John Luther Long, Madame Chrysantheme (1898); this, in turn, was adapted from Pierre Loti’s memoir-novel with the same title (1885), and was said to be based on real events. (In a testament to the timelessness of Puccini’s operas, La Boheme was adapted by Jonathan Larson years after Miss Saigon and became known as the award-winning musical Rent.) The opera was initially unsuccessful and had been revised four times, with each revision giving Puccini better reviews. Because of its popularity in Europe and in the US, Madama Butterfly helped shape how the Western World has regarded Japan, which had just started to open up during the early years of the Meiji Empire.

Puccini’s Madama Butterfly narrates the love story of Cio-cio-san—the Italianized spelling of cho-cho which means “butterfly”–and Lt. Pinkerton, an American naval officer who married Cio-cio out of convenience. After Pinkerton leaves Japan, Cio-cio gave birth to a child and had hoped to be reunited with her Pinkerton, only to realize that her hopes had been all in vain.  Anyone familiar with Madama Butterfly will recognize similarities between Miss Saigon and the Puccini opera. Both Cio-cio-san and Kim fell in love with American military officers; each one bore a son; and both characters met similar struggles in their bids to reunite with their lovers. There are even parallels in the musical numbers: love duets that use images of nature (Butterfly‘s duo near the end of Act 1; Miss Saigon‘s “Sun and Moon” and “Last Night of the World”), a monologue by its lead female characer (“Un bel di vedremo” for Butterfly, parts of “I Still Believe” for Miss Saigon), and even a confrontation with another female character. Even the ending of both works are similar, too.

However, Schoenberg and Boublil introduced some elements in Miss Saigon that were absent in Butterfly. These unique elements are stated early on, during the first thirty minutes of the musical. Miss Saigon is set in the middle of the Vietnam War (vs. the peaceful circumstances of Butterfly). Kim’s family perished in the war (vs. Cio-cio-san’s family losing their fortune), and was forced to work in a brothel by an opportunistic pimp who calls himself The Engineer, until her freedom has been bought by a US Marine officer. Chris the Marine officer encounters a rival, Thuy, a Viet Cong officer who was supposed to have been betrothed to Kim. After her (forced) separation from Chris, Kim, unlike Cio-cio-san, is alone with her son and has to fend for herself and her son. Miss Saigon also brings up some contemporary themes that were either absent or not fully threshed out in Madama Butterfly.

LIVING REMINDERS OF ALL THE GOOD WE FAILED TO DO

For instance, at the time of its premiere, Miss Saigon has been regarded as a condemnation of the Vietnam War, a US-sponsored war that was widely regarded as a failure even by Americans. But instead of putting a spotlight on the failed ambitions of the American regime, Miss Saigon focuses on the casualties of war: the displaced Vietnamese people who were caught between the crossfires of the US Armed forces and their allies on the one hand, and that of the Soviet-backed North Vietnamese Army. (During the war, Vietnam was divided into the US-backed South Vietnam and its capital Saigon, and communist Northern Vietnam.) Fears of reprisals by the North drove some Vietnamese away from their homeland, resulting in an exodus that brought refugees to places as nearby as Bangkok (the setting of Act II) and as far as Palawan, Philippines.

The Vietnam War also resulted in a number of Amerasian children sired by American servicemen, of which a significant number have been abandoned or neglected by their fathers. Like the Amerasians who were born around the then Subic-Clark US air bases, the Vietnamese Amerasians also experienced discrimination from their fellow countrymen and have received inferior treatment as second-class citizens in their own country. The second act of Miss Saigon begins with a call to help to improve the plight of Amerasians—to help the “bui-doi” by rendering “all the good we failed to do”—and then continues to show Kim’s efforts to give her son Tam a better life.

Miss Saigon also touches on exploitation, and is unrelenting in showing how Kim was passed on as either a piece of merchandise (by the manipulative Engineer) or as a prized property in an arranged marriage’s contract (by her would-be groom Thuy). Kim is looked down by some of the leading male characters as a mere trifle, whose only purpose (it seems) is to provide pleasure in a patriarchy that allows women’s bodies to be exploited for cash and for pleasure. There has been some controversy as to whether Miss Saigon itself is exploitative in how it presented Kim’s story (as well as how the Vietnamese have been portrayed but, if any, Miss Saigon reminds us that exploitation has not gone away, and there is a lot of work that needs to be done to combat it.

In Miss Saigon‘s perspective, then, the greater failure and casualty of the Vietnam War, more than the failed ambitions of greater American military influence in Southeast Asia, is the senseless destruction of Vietnamese lives and the breakdown of families as a result of the War.  For all the glamour of its much-talked about “American Dream” sequence, or the brute force of its (in)famous helicopter scene, or the garish neon lights of the brothels of Saigon and Bangkok, Miss Saigon is a bleak work of theater. It is not your feel-good West End or Broadway musical, and despite the tender love duets for which it was known, it is unapologetic for the strong language and themes it use; Miss Saigon, after all, is a drama set during wartime. Nothing here is sugarcoated. (Understandably, the 25th Anniversary Performance film has been rated R-13 by the MTRCB.)

COMING HOME AGAIN

Yet, despite its depressing subject, Miss Saigon remains popular among Filipinos, who have looked forward to watch the performances by its Filipino cast members. For years, Miss Saigon‘s producer Cameron Mackintosh has mentioned how he has been blessed to have worked with Filipinos and how their professionalism has contributed to the musical’s success; as a result, Filipinos are present in many major Miss Saigon productions all over the world. This is why the Manila production of Miss Saigon in 2000-2001 was dubbed as a homecoming; for Miss Saigon as we know it would not have been possible without the Filipinos who gave life to its characters.

Thus, Miss Saigon served as the calling card of the Pinoys who became part of its cast and who later made their own names in show business: among Lea Salonga’s fellow Miss Saigon alumni are Monique Wilson, Isay Alvarez, Robert Sena, Cezarah Campos (the alternate Kim in the 2000-2001 Manila production), Jenine Desiderio, Jamie Rivera, the late Junix Inocian, Casey Francisco, Joanna Ampil, Leo Valdez, Tanya Manalang, Robbie Guevarra and Ima Castro. Even Makati Councilor Jhong Hilario and a few of his fellow Streetboys members count themselves as Miss Saigon alumni (as members of the production’s dancers and acrobats).

And in some respects, the limited release of the Miss Saigon 25th Anniversary Performance movie in the Philippines will also be a homecoming, at much more accessible venues (including select SM Cinemas in Northern Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao). It also comes at an affordable price: at P320 per ticket, it’s cheaper than the P500 tickets for an Upper Balcony Side seat during Miss Saigon’s Manila production (even without accounting for inflation). If the teaser trailer video is any indicator, the 25th Anniversary movie promises to be an immersive experience, as a good number of the scenes were shot at very close distances, something which would not be possible even in a live theater performance. For this price and for the experience alone, this is arguably a good deal that anyone who has long wanted to see Miss Saigon should not miss.

MOVIE REVIEW: Ignacio de Loyola (2016)

For years, the Jesuit Communication Foundation (Jescom) based in the Ateneo de Manila University has built a name as the leading Catholic multimedia ministry in the Philippines. Founded by the legendary Fr. James B. Reuter, Jescom first gained a reputation as a leading publisher of liturgical music by Fr Eduardo Hontiveros and his associates. It has since ventured into print media, radio and TV broadcast, and social media ministry. In July 27, 2014, through a Facebook post, Jescom announced a new project that is ambitious in its scope: a full-length theatrical film about the founder of the Society of Jesus, Ignacio de Loyola, and only the second theatrical feature film about the saint (after the 1949 Spanish movie The Captain of Loyola).

The film opened exactly two years later. The timing couldn’t have been more apt: the chosen date came four days before the feast day of St. Ignatius, and also happened on the same week as the 31st World Youth Day in Poland, led by Pope Francis (the first Jesuit pope). An aggressive social media campaign helped push Ignacio to screen into 56 theaters nationwide on its first day. Featuring an all-Spanish cast and top-rate Filipino talents during production, and also backed by a number of Jesuit provinces (countries), expectations for the film were high.

Based on the St. Ignatius’ autobiography (where he referred to himself in the third person, as a way of abnegation), the film explores the genesis of Ignacio’s conversion and his beginnings as a preacher and spiritual adviser. As a member of the aristocracy, he was possessed by a thirst for adventure and conquest, inspired by his voracious reading of books like El Cid, Song of Roland and the Arthurian legends. After all, Ignatius lived during a vigorous period marked by adventurism and early colonialism: he was born a year before Columbus landed in America, and Magellan was killed at the Battle of Mactan around the time he dabbled in warfare. He was inspired by current events as he was by popular fiction.

After being seriously wounded in the Battle of Pamplona (1521), he was forced to give up a promising career as a military captain. Recovering after a botched operation that threatened to end his carefree life, he faced a terrifying anguish upon realizing that his life would have been worthless. Forced to read religious books when his hospital did not have his favorite genre–this was, after all, the Counter-Reformation, and most hospitals were run by the clergy and by monasteries—he suddenly realized that he was intended to serve a higher purpose and a more powerful Master, and resolved to renounce his old life and begin anew as a man of God. Between the Two Standards of God and Lucifer, he resolved to become a soldier of the Church-Militant.

The rest of the story traces Ignatius’ journey into establishing his newfound ministry, where he had free rein to share his ministry and to provide counsel using the formula he created in the Spiritual Exercises, a manual for spiritual directors from which most modern Catholic retreats are based from. The movie, however, falters in coming up with a coherent treatment of this journey, with different episodes strung together while at the same time competing through different points of view (particularly in the movie’s first act). To be fair, the same thing can be said about other Filipino films within the same genre. Among those produced in this genre within the last 30 years were Lorenzo Ruiz…The Saint…A Filipino! (1988, Maria Saret), Madre Ignacia [del Espiritu Santo]: Ang Uliran (1988, Nick Deocampo), Divine Mercy sa Buhay ni Sister Faustina (1993, Ben Yalung), Kristo (1996, also by Ben Yalung) and, more recently, Pedro Calungsod: Batang Martir (2013, Francis Villacorta). These movies also attempted to cover as much ground as possible about each saint’s life, but being unable to establish a strong theme that would have justified the selected episodes being portrayed.

That said, the film makes it up with a sincere portrayal by Andreas Munoz as Ignacio de Loyola. Munoz gives the audience an Ignacio who was less adventurous and more introspective. Resigned that his injuries could mean (among other) he would never be able to dance again with Princess Catalina (Tacuara Casares), Munoz-as-Ignacio does not hide his anguish, his being abject and defeated. Devouring every page of the Lives of Saints and the Life of Christ that he read, he slowly transformed into the calm convert, his spirits fired by a zeal to become a renewed Christian. At the same time, Munoz portrays a composed, compassionate spiritual director who wins the trust of people who confided to him; his conversation with the prostitute Anna (Marta Codina) is often cited in various reviews and social media comments as the most touching scene in the movie, and rightfully so.

Besides the all-Spanish cast (who spoke their lines in an accented English), Ignacio de Loyola is supported by top-rated Filipino talents. Ryan Cayabyab composed and conducted the movie’s powerful musi. As with his previous work in film, Cayabyab has underscored themes and ideas in the movie with easily-identifiable musical motifs, which are deftly transformed in succeeding scenes. The theme with Princess Catalina, for instance, begins as a lovely gavotte (supported by guitarist Lester Demetillo) between her and Ignacio. After they part ways and whenever Ignacio recalls his limerence, the dance theme resurfaces, each time becoming more infused with melancholy, and finally fully developing near the movie’s end as a statement of how Ignacio’s worldy desire has changed into a spiritual desire. Another recurring theme, taken from the Credo by Cayabyab (from an early opus), accompanies Ignacio’s meditations in a moving interpretation highlighted by cellist Francisco Llorin.

The entire score is recorded by the ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra in a stirring reading of Cayabyab’s score that would certainly match the best music produced in other films. The Ateneo Chamber singers also provided strong support in their rendition of choral lines, notably the haunting Suscipe at the entire end credits. Having started out as a music producer, Jescom clearly spared no expense with regard to the music by hiring only the best Filipino talent it could find for this movie, and this alone for me would be worth the ticket. (I’m looking forward to buy a copy of the soundtrack’s CD.)

Director Paolo Dy may have made missteps in terms of how the movie’s story and script has been (under)developed–this being his first feature film–but there is no denying that he was motivated by a singular vision in realizing a modern take on St. Ignatius (whose story itself is larger than life). For sure, Ignacio will find its place in many education film showings and might even be regularly aired on Holy Week television specials. Having said all these, Ignacio de Loyola is a interesting (if not compelling) showcase of Filipino talent, and this film provides audiences with a good introduction on how far Filipino talent can go.

Special thanks to Eric Louie Bolante (production manager of the ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra), for his assistance in providing some details about the production of Ignacio de Loyola.