Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Sunday Beauty Queen (Baby Ruth Villarama, Metro Manila Film Festival 2016)

This exceptional movie was high on my list of must-watch films at the Metro Manila Film Festival 2016 (MMFF). I first learned of its miraculous entry into the festival during a film forum in November 2016. I was happy to hear the good news from moderator Ed Cabagnot. I was impressed by filmmaker Baby Ruth Villarama-Gutierrez’s previous documentary Little Azkals and looked forward to seeing her latest work.

Sunday Beauty Queen highlights the inner beauty of hardworking Filipina domestic helpers in Hong Kong. During Sundays, they converge in public places and indulge in their favorite activities and hobbies. The focus of the documentary is a group of domestic helpers joining and organizing beauty contests. Their imperfections, terrible grammar, and embarrassing experiences are laid out in the open. They may not have faces and bodies like those of our Miss Universe and Miss World winners but they are confidently beautiful with big, big hearts.

Filmmaker Gutierrez, whose mother is a former domestic helper, portrays such Overseas Filipino Workers as a boon not only to their families and country but also to the whole world. Fellow filmmaker Jack Soo, an employer of a domestic helper/beauty contestant, says that if the Philippine government decides to stop the influx of Filipina domestic helpers to Hong Kong, China, and other countries, the world will be in big trouble. Singapore barged into the list of Olympic gold winning countries courtesy of a young swimmer who proudly claimed to have been raised by a Filipina nanny. A Chinese ballet teacher says employing a Filipina maid is worth every dollar spent. The average monthly salary of a Filipina domestic helper is $550 dollars, which is equivalent to the salary of a junior executive in the Philippines.

The documentary will put a smile on your face just like the infectious smile of Filipino tourist Chuck Gutierrez, film editor, producer and husband of the filmmaker. No matter where they are, Filipinos will always show their sense of humor, peculiarities, and idiosyncrasies. There’s a Filipina cook in Hong Kong who takes pictures of her Pinoy food dishes neatly arrayed on a rectangular table. Her primary objective is to make her Facebook friends envious of her. Another Filipina gets the boot from her employer after breaking a curfew. She was so engrossed joining a beauty contest that she lost track of time. Or maybe she’d had enough of working for her employer. There are tales told of ruthless employers but there are also heartwarming stories about Chinese employers treating Filipina domestic helpers as part of family.

Sunday Beauty Queen is a more impressive documentary than Little Azkals. The latter took some time before it gets things rolling.
Sunday Beauty Queen plunges immediately to the lives of colorful characters. I liked it better than the three local documentaries shown at the Cinema One Originals Festival 2016.

The inclusion of Sunday Beauty Queen to the MMFF justifies the revamped selection process. I’ve seen three other entries and they are quite good. So far, there are no fillers among the entries. Bravo! Take a bow, members of the MMFF executive and selection committees.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Miss Saigon: 25th Anniversary Performance (Brett Sullivan, 2016)

Miss Saigon: 25th Anniversary Performance is a feel-good Pinoy pride movie. Composed mostly of footages taken during the 25th Anniversary Gala show of Miss Saigon, the filmed play showcases to great detail the extraordinary artistry of performers with Filipino blood.

The first highlight goes to Rachel Ann Go portraying the reigning Miss Saigon, Gigi. The song ‘The Movie in My Mind’ tells of Gigi’s dream of a better future. She is tired of servicing soldiers who screw like boys. Her highly expressive face is shown clearly in several close-up shots.

A major advantage of film is it can focus on a certain performer or give a better view of facial expression. I’ve seen the musical Miss Saigon in its Manila run at the Cultural Center of the Philippines a long time ago. I was seated way up high at the Balcony section and can barely see the faces of the performers. The visual treats that stuck with me then were the mammoth scenes such as the Helicopter evacuation scene and the fall of Saigon parade. I heard the songs but I didn’t see/feel the performances.

The filmed musical Miss Saigon, about star-crossed lovers caught up in the Vietnam war, levels the playing field. The audience gets to see the performers’ emotive faces up close. The downside to a filmed play is when the cinema audience claps in appreciation it is a one-way gesture. There’s no sharing of love.

The crowd favorite Jon Jon Briones is stunning as an opportunistic manager of a girlie bar in Vietnam. Briones, being an Oriental, fits the role of the Engineer. The Engineer’s deep yearning for the American way of life is seen during 'The American Dream’ scene. Here, Briones pants like a dog. The Engineer’s huge ambition overwhelms his small stature.

Jonathan Pryce is a good actor but the Engineer is really a Vietnamese. Well, Pryce might have put up a great performance as an Engineer that the audience simply ignored his white skin.

The US-born Fil-Am actress, Eva Noblezada, evokes empathy with her innocent, gentle voice as Kim. There's a tinge of vulnerability in her that makes men take notice and care for her.

The first Act is packed with amazing musical highlights. However, there's an early small scene that made me believe in the filmed concept. A notable scene shows a saxophone player showered with cocaine powder. As the white dust settle on the shimmery sax, the player is egged to hit the ‘high note.’ This is a case where the filmed scene is an improvement on the theatre scene. Without the white dust, the ‘high note’ phrase is a mere musical term and not a druggie term.

A major bonus of the film is a 35 minute show featuring stars of the original cast, Jonathan Pryce, Simon Bowman, and Lea Salonga.

Rachel Ann Go reprises the 'Movie in My Mind' song this time with the original Kim, Lea Salonga. She is really a fantastic singer. The filmed version of the song, while stunning, sees Rachel Ann Go singing in a mix of live performance and subsequent filmed close-up footages. Yes, there are lots of sleight of hand editing wizardry done in the filmed version. However, the gala performance of Go with Salonga shows pure Filipino singing talents at their finest. There is no take two for the two wonderful ladies.

My main complaint with the filmed version of Miss Saigon is the fuzzy texture of the film. It is not as clear as the filmed version of the 25th anniversary show of Phantom of the Opera. But, even though it is not in high definition, I'm thankful to relive the musical Miss Saigon on a theater widescreen.

Searching for a Christmas present for the theater fan? Look no further. A Blu-ray or DVD version of the filmed version of Miss Saigon is the perfect gift.

Si Magdalola At Ang Mga Gago (Jules Katanyag, Cinema One Originals 2016)

In the indie film scene, there are several people working behind the scenes whose presence in the credit roll marks that film to be of high quality. Of course, they do appear in some clunkers but these team players are like solid baseball pinch hitters able to help their team win big. On the top of my head, such reliable film people include producer Bianca Balbuena, producer Daphne Chiu, scriptwriter Michiko Yamamoto, editor Carlo Francisco Manatad, and script consultant Armando Lao.

Filmmaker Timmy Harn had been helping tyro filmmakers work on their dream projects for the Cinema One Originals film competition the past three years. He was a finalist during the 2013 competition with his film Ang Pagbabalat ng Ahas. In 2014 and 2015 competitions, he was assistant director to the award-winning films Violator and Manang Biring. This year, assistant director Harn kept his Midas touch by helping the film Si Magdalola At Ang Mga Gago win the Jury Prize. 

Si Magdalola At Ang Mga Gago surprisingly incorporated some concepts from films made by Harn. Reptilian behavior, horrific flaming deaths, and feisty elderly women find their way into this wonderful amalgamation of film genres.

Memorable oddball characters created by Jules Katanyag include a nubile granddaughter, an English-speaking food-sensitive villain, a pistol-packing female mayor, and the titular elderly shaman, Magda (Peewee O’Hara). They keep the story boiling because any interaction between or among themselves reek of strong sexual tension or high suspense.

Si Magdalola At Ang Mga Gago utilizes multi-screen images that seemingly blend an insect’s way of seeing with a witch’s clairvoyance. The witches can locate the whereabouts of any person. A witch easily traverses the forest like a slithery snake to put a hex on a rapist.

A hilarious scene uses the subtitle to bring on the laughs. The gang leader is more adept in mauling the English language than in gunning down the spunky Magda.

The action scenes are okay although the scenes to watch out for are the graphic drug abuse scenes. The dopey girl who've had a good time ended up in the morgue. Another scene shows a pair of thugs trying to extract information from a druggie.

Si Magdalola At Ang Mga Gago combines the lunacy of Big Time, the surprises of a Quentin Tarantino movie, and the smoldering atmosphere of Alon. It is a heady, messy, bloody but intensely riveting movie.