SUGAR DADDY, Meet Sugar Baby

In Elwood Perez's Sugar Daddy (Regal Films, Inc., 1977), irony, altruism, instantaneous blindness, overt sexuality and modernist interior design are all ladled onto the narrative frame without so much as the whisper of a suspicion that the whole enterprise ought to collapse even without the added weight of Perez's skepticism. Of course, Perez’s melodramas are far too rigorous and tightly wound even when his subject matter occasionally approaches emotional recklessness of a comparable magnitude. Perez’s specialty was chronicling with a merciless analytical bent (good humor? bad faith?) the mechanics of a soap opera. It becomes a cliché to celebrate Perez for his ruthless take on social mores and to overcompensate for deconstructing not only those behavioral habits but also how pop culture reflects and feeds them.

Perez accentuates all the aspects that shouldn’t work, incidental coincidences, irrational decisions, sermons of nebulous denomination. His commitment to the ridiculous is what finesses that irony, but it’s not a safe irony. Sugar Daddy is a much more mysterious beast, one that doesn’t work without a belief in Perez’s form. A central aesthetic of Perez’s work is that the stories he has to tell are always (and knowingly) complicated by the ways he tells them. In particular, they emerge through the dichotomy he’s able to create between their visual design and the characters’ understanding of their circumstances. Sugar Daddy perfectly illustrates this. While its surface might suggest a ferociously straight face, they also point to other ways of understanding the drama unspooling before our eyes. And they achieve a moving balance between an empathy for the plight of the characters. Ricky Belmonte’s powerful contribution is often undervalued, as is Alma Moreno’s performance and the ironic distance which allows us to see them all in a different light.

MIDNIGHT SHOW... Tired and Defeated

If Midnight Show (HPS Film Productions, 1979) is not among the worst of its kind, because its kind is among the worst of any kind. This is a bloodless murder thriller laced with very little sex. The suspense generated in this cheaply sensational film is episodic, rising at the time of the kill and receding into boredom at other times. The actors cannot be faulted. They bring more to the story than it really deserves. Lorna Tolentino gives an outstanding performance as Stella, the harried and distressed protagonist. Bembol Roco has the fairly thankless task of saying only what the movie needs him to say, he's limited by the fact that his killer has no real dimension or personality apart from his function as a plot device. Unfortunately, bewilderment comes more naturally to him than intelligence and his line readings, aiming for creepiness, just sound silly. Ruby Anna plays Mylene the dancer, who becomes the bland psycho's target. Ronald Corveau, is more convincing as Ronald, Stella’s dissembling boyfriend.

Midnight Show is so ineptly made that key scenes take place offscreen. Logic isn't the problem with this movie, a lack of humanity is. It's a routine thriller that is, for the most part, slow moving and uneventful. I wouldn't really mind the  clichés and the tired old material so much, if the filmmakers had brought energy or a sense of style to the material. But Midnight Show seems unconvinced of its own worth. It's a tired, defeated film in which no one seems to love what they're doing, unless maybe it's a few of the character actors, like Arnold Mendoza and Nello Nayo (as Stella’s father), who have scenes they seem to relish. Director Leonardo L. Garcia is saddled with an emotionally empty script by Diego Cagahastian. The confusing plot is untangled at the end, though loose ends dangle all over. Midnight Show contains all the best clichés from more successful suspense movies. But the clichés exist in a vacuum. The events happen because they have happened in other thrillers and seemed like a good idea at the time. 

DABIANA... No Shrinking Violet

In Arsenio Bautista's misconceived comedy, a confused plea to look beyond appearances and see the overweight for their inner beauty, Dabiana (Seven Star Productions, 1977) lurches from sensitivity to tastelessness, spending half its time making fat jokes and the other half apologizing for them. It's doubtful that anyone could pull off such a difficult stunt, but here even Bautista, who normally delights in pushing the boundaries of acceptability, seem less certain of himself, as if paralyzed by taboos that aren't worth shattering. Dabiana, the 270-pound heroine played by Cecille Iñigo, has its cake and eats it, too. It gets away with fat jokes at the same time it seems to be on the side of the angels and inner beauty. Fortunately, there's more to it than that. What Bautista and writers Tony S. Mortel and Mau Samonte really want us to do is stop ducking the obvious, accept the world for what it is and keep laughing at it anyway. People shouldn't worry their pretty little heads over finding euphemisms. This is tough-minded and comes from a genuine comic spirit.

Iñigo is a marvel. No shrinking violet, Dabiana stands up for herself as women her size must learn to do, but she also has the slight hesitancy of someone never quite comfortable with herself or completely able to hide her insecurity. She's shyly surprised that Pol (Allan Valenzuela) is paying so much attention to her new self as aspiring actress Susan Romero (Amy Austria). How will Pol behave when Susan comes out of her trance? It can only be a matter of time before he sees Susan as she actually is. Before that happens, we get glimpses of cellulite and double chins. Having set all this up, Dabiana's got to be funny, too. It would be pointless reverse-PC if they didn't come up with the laughs and for a while it looks as if we're in trouble. There are a couple of really sharp verbal zingers as well as some visual surprises that keep the audience guessing. There is some well- earned sentiment, too. The film might have worked had Bautista not treated the subject so broadly, or if they had included a few jokes in the final half-hour. Dabiana wears its good intentions on its sleeve, but if the overweight need a boost of self-esteem, fewer movies like this one would help.

The Power of 'MERIKA

In 'Merika (Adrian Films, 1984), director, Gil M. Portes and screenwriters, Clodualdo del Mundo, Jr. and Jose Gil Quito did something quietly daring and very different. The framework is refreshingly simple, but it never feels claustrophobic or boring, or lacking of anything. Probably because Nora Aunor breathes life into the plot, channeling a kind of rare and subdued power. I commend the source material for providing Aunor with a backdrop to do incredible work. Because the character of Mila had room to be well-rounded and complex, Aunor was able to celebrate and expand her character's intelligence by way of an intelligent performance. To reiterate, Aunor does something smart with Mila. Something that aides the larger, holistic vision of the film. She imbues Mila with so much commanding subtlety, that the simplification becomes an advantage. 'Merika is a film that's obsessed with identity as most immigration narratives are, but if the titular character strips herself of belonging to any one place, we are certain that the woman standing before us belongs exactly where she is, on screen.

In my opinion, 'Merika lends much (most) of its success to Aunor. That's not to say it isn't a beautiful film, it's just a beautiful film that relies heavily on its lead to work, particularly because the story it aims to tell is so small in scope. Aunor's nuances, the way the whole narrative is refracted back at us through her movements and at times what feels like just her eyes, carries the film through all its own quiet uncertainties. You can see the wheels spinning, wheels of both deliberation trepidation in Aunor's eyes in particular, as she deals with losing things and gaining others (new friends, a career, a love story). It should be noted that Aunor's chemistry with everyone in the film is palpable and their performances are stunning as well. Still, I'd argue it's only because of Aunor that 'Merika never becomes compromised by its own confinement, but rather heightened because of it. Her powerful simplicity mirrors that of the film, as she steadily grows into something much larger and meaningful than the sum of its parts. It’s both rare and heartening to see a movie that grasps the poignancy of everyday life decisions, where to live, what job to take, who to partner with and how to press forward when every road promises something gained and something forever lost.

Sex and the City in ESOTERIKA: MAYNILA

Elwood Perez's Esoterika: Maynila (T. Rex Productions, Film Development Council of the Philippines, Tribute Entertainment, 2015) is funny, shocking and spectacularly turbo-charged. It creates a scary and beguiling electricity by allowing opposites to collide, horror and joy, colorful fantasy and grimy reality, history and hyper-modernity. The narrative structure of Esoterika: Maynila is perfect for a director like Perez, allowing himself to fast-forward between dramatic episodes at will and freeing him from the need to dwell too intimately on the finer shades of his characters' personalities. He's always been a filmmaker keener to play with form and tweak with tempo than to explore the complexities of human psychology. Yet the film, for all its breathless intensity rarely subverts expectations and in its final section never fails to grip or delight.

It's easy to sense the excitement that Perez and his cinematographers Justin Santos and Japo Parcero felt while filming around Manila. They're alive to the jagged rhythms of the city, its palette of colors that are rich and surreal. The metropolis in Esoterika: Maynila is brighter and livelier than any we've seen before. Perez is a gifted stylist and, for better or worse, an indiscriminate sensualist, the kind of filmmaker capable of finding tactile pleasure wherever he looks. For the director, the city is above all, an endless source of motion and color. Perez has always been an energetic filmmaker, but in Esoterika: Maynila, he whips himself up to a state of euphoric intensity. It roots itself in a cynicism-free celebration of fate, love and social camaraderie, conveyed with big, bold colors and extreme camera angles.