Business is slow in a provincial hole-in-the-wall girlie bar, so the men and women of the place – mostly women – stage a “big night” that will rake in the cash. Set in the 24 hours leading up to the event, Big Night (not to be confused with the Stanley Tucci movie about brothers in a restaurant) follows the exotic dancers in and out of the house, guiding us into their half-banal, half-sensational routines. In an early scene, the manager’s virtuous wife (Jaycee Parker) and the resident cook zigzag through the public market in the morning, buying ingredients for the night’s menu, also stopping by the ice plant to order lots of ice. Immediately, we’re immersed in the ordinariness of the activity as well as the extraordinariness of the situation that makes it necessary. Too often, our sex trade movies bask in the woeful, abnormal aspect of prostituion; The sneaky brilliance of Big Night is that it may be one of the few movies in which the business of selling sex is nuts-and-bolts unglamorous as it is alluringly strange, and sex workers are portrayed as both exotic and familiar with remarkable fluidity. It's what Prosti (2002), its closest forebear, would have been if that film's awkward romanticism was replaced by unsentimental frankness. Big Night also uses the overrated “real-time” style not as a mere gimmick in ironic gazing (see Serbis), but one that feels organic. Director Alejandro 'Bong' Ramos, who previously made the tricky but clunky Butas, redeems himself in a major way.
The men may not be in the spotlight, but they each have a (heterosexual) sex scene. Althea Vega, a firecracker of a woman, spends her sweaty afternoon shagging her boyfriend (Kian Cruz). In one cool sequence, Sophia Lee devirginizes a boy inside a sea hut while his peeping pals jerk off. It’s as hot a scene as any involving horny highschoolers, if that’s your thing.
Jordan Herrera plays the cliché role of a master with an iron fist. Watching him, I kept wondering why he’s been grunting and yelling in the same wife-beater alpha male role recently (Lalamunan, Pakpak), when he’s not even convincing. His cutie pie face and boytoy bod gets in the way of his pretend viciousness. Marco Morales joins the fray as a live sex performer hired especially for the night, and before you dismiss him as an actor who’s shed his clothes one time too many, the guy plays his most interesting role yet. His affection for his friend is more than a little homoerotic – their favorite memory is when they fucked each other for a Japanese audience. (Sorry, no flashbacks.) Plus, in one drunken scene, he storms naked into a dance rehearsal, hinting that the cocky confidence of this torero stems from an inner need to be watched.
The movie stalls when the big night finally arrives, as the women brace the stage for solo stripdances in predictable succession – but fans of popping boobies won’t get bored. For a while, it seems as if all the previous mini-stories don’t build up to anything. But then the movie takes a satsifying surprise turn. If you don’t like spoilers, stop reading now.
The real climax is a police raid that seems to come out of nowhere only because in this busy day of people working hard to make a living, no one talks about the possibility of not making it. In a deft sleight of hand, the film asked us to hope for deliverance, deceived us into thinking the villain is the manager with a gun, then throws us into the reality that the party-pooper, the destroyer of hopes – the real villain – will come from outside. It’s unnerving that on the same week that Big Night debuted in theaters, a real-life massage clinic in Quezon City was raided by the QCPD City Hall Detachment and a camera crew from ABS-CBN, then exploited on national TV. In the operatic final act of Big Night, the matronly bar owner, glued to a wheelchair, laments that they have complied with all possible requirements yet still end up bullied by the powers-that-be. It resonates as a cry against the authorities that can impede on our lives whenever they wish to do so, without reason or warning. What is exploitation, really, and who are the real exploiters? As the end credits appear elegantly over a funereal coda, Big Night, though rough around the edges, reveals itself to be a film of raging humanity.