Drag queens are cinema's instant exotic subjects, looking especially so when cooped together in one vehicle, such as in Priscilla: Queen of the Desert and To Wong Foo: Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar. Philippines' The Thank You Girls holds up well against these iconic cult favorites, looking a shade more exotic because it's third-world: The girls are in a jeepney, sometimes on top of it, en route to a gay beauty contest, and they're traveling amidst the lush green mountains of Mindanao. It's mesmerizing.
The surprise of the movie is that the visuals are only half the fun. The true delight is verbal. The girls while their hours with acerbic banter in native Dabawenyo gayspeak, but often, they spar back and forth with questions and answers as if constantly rehearsing for the competition. In flashbacks, we see them in actual gigs, flaunting not so much their costumes but their flairy speech. What the film captures is not simply gayspeak, but "beau-con (beauty-contest) speak": correct-sounding English sentences processed like hollow pep truisms. It's madly funny. They come off as send-ups of artificial good will: it doesn't have to make sense, it just has to sound good.
Charliebebs Gohetia, a writer and editor making his directorial debut, finds a rhythm that matches his subject: energetic and unrelenting, but also a bit disorienting and mysterious. He turns the predictable road trip structure into a pulsating jagged box. His creative cutting makes up for the parts of the film that seem as poor as what the budget probably allowed. It's a shame we never get a wider view of the contests, depriving us of the audience that the girls are supposedly showing themselves off for. I also wish the dialogue floated above the noise, rather than wallowed in the grungy ultrarealistic soup mix.
It's another surprise how memorable the characters become. One is a kleptomaniac, another a talentless guitar hero wannabe, one obsessed with a famous actress, and another who wants to prove Moslems like her can be gay too. The sentimental heart is a father-son relationship, both of them gay, approaching the rope-end of their frustrations. The girls are perennial pageant losers (the title comes from the polite bid of adieu to cue non-winners to step offstage) and they're playing for chump change. Even though these dolls constantly wear their negativities like a badge, they're always engaging, ultimately lovable dreamers. That's some achievement.
The Thank You Girls are played by Gie Salonga, July Jimenez, EJ Pantujan, Kit Poliquit, Kim Vergara, and Pidot Villocino as Mommy Paola.
I'm taking a break from my usual gay snobbery to re-evaluate every movie made in the Philippines in the last twelve months, or those I've seen anyway, which is not everything, but a good lot. Contrary to rumors, gay people watch non-gay movies too. But as you will see, I just think gay movies are great, even in the context of everything there is. In this list are seven awesome creations, plus three honorable mentions to round up a top ten.
You may have heard people's praises for writer-director Francis Xavier Pasion's sharp satire on how the media exploits lives, but this is, in fact, the least original aspect of the movie. As the repetitive deadpan jokes accumulate to suffocation, the drama reveals itself to be something more unsettling: a call to how our casual neglect for hard truth can be the death of us. The film bounces the examination from subject to hero to viewer, a truly, enjoyably, reflexive piece of cinema. You may also have heard people declare it's not a gay movie at all, including those behind its creation, but how can it not be if the central figure is a gay journalist covering a gay man's murder (played brilliantly by Baron Geisler), who uses his effeminate amiability as a power tool then gets swept under by his own vulnerability. Yes, folks, an intelligent, funny, sad, touching mockumentary-drama-comedy can be gay, and it's the most accomplished Filipino movie of the year.
2. Dose A young boy's rapturing sexuality is told with a refreshing ambiguity: Thrilling but daunting, a celebration as much as an elegy, it's a near-perfect encapsulation of the precise moment when a life was made alive by discovery. (Full review)
3. The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela Officially a co-production between the Philippines, Iceland, and France, the documentary-like journey of a Cebuana "ladyboy" has the easy-going flow of a fun fairy tale and a sad heart of dislocation and longing. (Full review)
4. Adela A tribute to people of a certain golden age and an abomination of a country's neglect, the slice-of-life realism stars screen legend Anita Linda in the year's most undeniable performance.
5. Melancholia Lav Diaz's films are epic not only in length but in their relentless sweep of big subjects. This nine-hour black-and-white meditation on loss, mining implications both spiritual and political, is raging rallycry and prayer.
6. Quicktrip The most romantic movie of the year doesn’t have a love team, but a single gay soul with a bleeding heart and an empty pocket. There’s homecooked magic in the way a search for a partner transforms into a quiet reclaiming of love for self. (Full review)
7. Carnivore Brash and propulsive, the fraternity initiation potboiler that’s part jungle horror bonanza is a visceral juggernaut depicting no less than the psychic pain that nestles in the breast of macho culture.
Carlo Aquino in Carnivore
Daybreak A contained drama in which two men talk, fuck, dance, and fuck some more, it’s intelligent in its use of economy to raise its question: If two people love each other when they’re together, what good reason is there outside to tear them apart? (Full review)
UPCAT We’ve almost forgotten the joy of watching a good formula teen flick, but this one about high schoolers on the verge of their futures oozes with personality – through its winsome cast and the youthful zest of the filmmaking.
Dayo Scoff if you must at its technical flaws or its limiting kiddie appeal, but the most entertaining Pinoy animation thus far gets an honorable mention for its hip, funny, loving make-over of Filipino folk creatures: They’re more alive than most real-life actors in the movies this year.
100 An independent woman handles her death with a sense of mundane duty, but as she slowly allows her loved ones to participate in her final activities, she becomes a tourist in life's little middle-class pleasures. The mellow drama keeps shedding teeth to skim the mass appeal and emotionality of hallmark card vignettes, and ultimately suggests that death makes a martyr out of anyone. Though shot with a cool sophistication, it may actually be worse than The Bucket List, philosophically. B-
Caregiver London is a cold place where human connection is rare and therefore precious. The feminist emancipation drama at play is somewhat cutesy, but the portrayal of Filipino male egoes tested in a country that treats them as second class citizens is illuminating. B+
Ploning The chaotic structure bogs it down and characters are prone to chicken soup soundbiting, but the locomotive final act of this bucolic mini-epic (the Philippine entry to the Oscars) evokes wonder and the film coheres into a tapestry of people's faiths. B+(Full review)
Serbis A parade of artsy shock tactics in search of meaning or feeling. I still wish to see if the denounced Director's cut of this Cannes Film Festival entry amounts to more than third-world cinema posturing. C+(Full review)
Now Showing The subdued five-hour rendering of a lonely childhood that turns into lonely young adulthood is a snooze with a few bright moments. B-
Imburnal Somewhere in the achingly gorgeous photography set in Davao river is a snapshot of young people coming of sexual age. A dead-slow four hours, this is filmmaking ruled by jejune over-indulgences, such as in the five minutes of black we're supposed to watch as smart art. B-
Boses It’s hard to argue with a film that advocates the rescue of abused children, but this melodrama about a mute boy who turns out to be a violin prodigy is so stiff in its manufactured plotting that it threatens to trivialize its own supposed humanity. C
Sa Pagdapo Ng Mariposa Not always easy viewing with its distracting lapses, the strange romantic thriller about a nurse who falls for his patient is nonetheless a pleasure; the story keeps careening into demented, high-concept surprises. B-(Full review)
Ang Lihim Ni Antonio The indie gay hit early in the year may prove to be a future beloved classic, especially since it works better on home video with its repeat-worthy sexual situations. But I still think it’s a droll affair with a generic hero and a blasé view of the fate of homosexuals. C+(Full review)
Baler The siege of a town church between Spanish soldiers and Filipino rebels is a footnote in history that’s tackled via all angles, both sides, plus conflicts in love and family. The only thing missing is a clear point of view. B-
2007 Films in 2008
With festival films comprising the bulk of movies produced in the country nowadays, the calendar of moviegoing has acquired a curious trait. Films made the previous year get delayed commercial runs the following year, if at all. So maybe you’re one of those whose 2008 was made meaningful by 2007 films such as Pisay, Endo, Confessional, Tirador, Tambolista, Maling Akala, Altar, Sikil, Roxxxanne, Selda, When Timawa Meets Delgado, and more. Expect to see some 2008 films find audience in 2009.
The Awards Season in the Philippines is likewise a year-long affair, beginning with the Gawad Tanglaw in January up to as late as the Luna Awards in October. This, for films from the previous year! Proving to be the most overpraised in the awards this year is the multi-winner Selda. You know how I feel about the film. While the most overlooked is the brilliant Autohystoria, with zero nomination. Meanwhile, actor Kristoffer Grabato of When Timawa Meets Delgado gave the one excellent performance that no one bothered to notice.
Among the potpourri of characters in this multi-storied comedy are a gay beautician (Chocoleit) and his unrequited love (Joross Gamboa), and tonight, after previously providing for his needs, the inexperienced lad may finally concede to sleeping with the parlorista. They’re both familiar caricatures and they don’t exactly amount to more, but so is everybody else. The pompous actor. The philandering politician. The conservative provincial lass with an inner nymph. Part of why this sexy romp is so comfortable to watch is that everyone stays in their archetypal box, but with crackling dialogue and vivacious performances that make them seem fresh. It’s Abangan ang Susunod Na Kabanata minus the class politics. Every actor here looks like he’s having fun with his assigned chess piece. The joy for the viewer is in riding along with writer-director Jose Javier Reyes’ and editor Tara Illenberger’s smart zippy salad toss of simultaneous events (it happens in one night), and how everybody is marshalled unto a riotous convergence (in a motel).
You may find it a bit insulting that both the gay and the lesbian are pushy lovers itching to get laid while both their partners are pressured, looking like they’d rather be with someone else. Or that the only other gay character, played by Ogie Diaz, is a loud, angry tabloid rat whose mission is to destroy the life of the guy who beat him up. But then everything ends in such a lightweight blow-off that you almost accept the movie for the politically incorrect farce that it is. For better and worse, this night, though busy, doesn’t really feel life-changing. But it sure was fun.
Bonus, in case you want to know: Male cast members who show some skin include Paolo Contis as the horny muscular actor, Jon Avila as a yuppie player shuttling between two women, running around the premises in his undies, and Ricky Davao, in wifebeater and boxers, on a swing. Joross Gamboa never gets to remove his buttoned polo and necktie. Jason Colis as a loyal boyfriend remains in a barong tagalog. Manilyn Reynes, the token dyke, is attached to her backpack.
If a joke doesn't have a punchline, is it still a joke? The annoying Desperadas sequel is certainly built from comedic situations, but somebody forgot to draw any actual humor from them. Joel Lamangan, the country's busiest B-movie director, doesn't so much stage his scenes as he just lets it hang to dry. The scenarios start out promising -- for example, a straight hottie (Will Devaughn) is clueless that his buddy is gay (Wendell Ramos) while they're in a spa together -- but the comedy ends where the premise begins, and what follows is only a limp fade away. The non-stop musical score is the band aid to remind us we should be laughing.
Essentially a wish-fulfillment fantasy in which perpetually dolled up women get shopping money and fashion parades mainly through wealthy men, and create problems for themselves basically because they don't have any, Desperadas 2 is worthy of this blog's attention only because of three things: (SPOILERS ALERT!)
(1) Ogie Alcasid, one of the most gifted comedians of his generation, sashays in faux-Africana drag as a half-sister. She's first assumed to be transsexual in the same durugatory breath as she is called ugly. Her main fancy are "bagets" or jailbait boys, then finds a helpless one (Carlo Guevarra). Her sexual attraction to him is likened to cannibalism. They fall in love, get married, smack lips-to-lips without tongue. It's ultimately a pointless thread, in which the fine comic talent is reduced to an exotic caveman non-character.
(2) Wendell Ramos is an ex-husband and father who, after being spurned by one lover (Dion Ignacio) who says he'd rather sleep with women, decides he needs a sex change operation. Is he still a transgender if his desire to be a woman is really just a ruse to find a man? Whatever. In the end, he does seem like a happy woman with a man in his arms, of course.
(3) Plenty of eye candy. The supporting men -- Will Devaughn, Jay-R, Wendell Ramos, TJ Trinidad, Christian Vasquez -- each get their bodyshot moments, with some bulging briefs and the innuendo-laden sexual situations. They're also able performers who sometimes make room for cute hamminess. But the rest of the men in the periphery also get the fairy dust sexy sprinkle, including Dion Ignacio, Carlo Guevarra, Alex Castro, and Paolo Avelino. Maybe if it were a male calendar instead of a comedy, I wouldn't ask for punchlines.