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Metro Manila Film Festival 2020: Tarnishing the Superstar

By Joseph L. Garcia, Reporter

MOVIE REVIEW
Isa Pang Bahaghari
Directed by Joel Lamangan

YOU’VE got a problem in your hands if Superstar Nora Aunor can’t quite get you to focus on a movie.

Isa Pang Bahaghari sounds like a follow-up to Joel Lamangan’s 2018 hit Rainbow’s Sunset. Not having seen that movie, we won’t be able to compare Bahaghari to that 2018 MMFF Best Picture awardee. Suffice it to say that we don’t think this movie could stand up to its predecessor.

Dom (played by Philip Salvador), is an aged and ailing seaman who, after a maritime accident, disappeared for 20 years. He had been marooned in Cuba and came to live with his rescuers. In that span of time, he had been with a common-law wife, and her death and his release from that life prompts him to return to the Philippines. His wife, Lumen (Nora Aunor), believing him to be dead, raises his children in squalor by a seaside town, where she makes tuyo (dried fish).

Before I get angry at the rest of the film’s details, let me first commend the Superstar for an entrance that is a testament to her powers. She’s shuffling fish, dishevelled and disabled; but still managing to elicit a gasp from the audience. That’s the last time in this film that I could say I loved her’ because I would say this film painfully underutilized its cast. Right after her entrance, any love or sympathy I may have had for her character has disappeared. Even The Superstar is no match against unimaginative camerawork and a lack of texture; the film appears to be a long Sunday TV drama, fit only for the small screen. The cast is also a victim of unlikely writing: after seeing my spouse whom I had long believed to be dead, without prior knowledge of his soap-operatic circumstances, I wouldn’t run up to him and try to beat him up with my crutch. Lumen’s crutch is explained as a consequence of a workplace accident (how Dickensian!), but frankly, I think she hobbled from trying to carry the whole movie on her back.

The film spins on the axis of the friendship between Dom and an old gay man, Rhey (Michael de Mesa), who tries to reconcile both his old friends. Lumen was his high school best friend, while Dom was an old flame he couldn’t quite put out. This is problematic: I can forgive Rhey being an old gay trope: he does hair, he speaks with an old-fashioned gay lisp, he lipsyncs kundimans in drag. Fine. He is a product of his times. What I find hard to forgive is that despite him being a main character, he serves only as an accessory to a heteronormative storyline: fixing up his two best friends. Isn’t he a little bit too old for that?

Well, Rhey has a lot on his plate either way: that plot! In the first 40 minutes (the movie runs for two hours), he is supposed to help the pair with the following: Dom’s estrangement from his wife and kids; his son being a drug pusher in this climate (he constantly receives warnings about his death in the hands of the law — more on this later), his daughter as an exotic dancer (she defends herself by saying she never took all her clothes off), and his other son in jail due to a false accusation of rape. Add this to the fact that everyone is quite poor and miserable. In one scene, Dom reveals to Rhey that he also has stage 4 cancer, and I said the same thing as Michael de Mesa’s character: “Ha?! Cancer?!”

From this plot comes my praise for MMFF’s streaming service for this year: in the time I spent trying to avoid the plot, I had time to reorganize my jewelry and try two different hairstyles. I wouldn’t have had that freedom had this been shown in the theaters.

(Spoilers ahead!)

I say that the film doesn’t optimize its stars — and in hindsight, its material. For example: there’s the son’s subplot involving his trade in drugs, and his death at the hands of the law. In one scene, where he’s almost killed, it’s implied that the bounty on his dead head was set by his bosses, and not the tentacles of the law with which he is constantly threatened. Really? As for my commentary about the stars: you’ve got Nora Aunor in there. There were several opportunities for monologues, but they were either unceremoniously interrupted; or else given up to badly-shot flashbacks. Instead, Nora Aunor’s most memorable line in the movie is, “Puki mong fake!,” translated as “You’re a fake, Rhey!” in the subtitles.

Speaking of the subtitles, whenever Rhey is called “bakla” (gay) onscreen, it’s translated as the six-letter F-word slur in the subtitles. Surely we can find a much better word? Even just removing the last three letters would soften the blow. I don’t know if I’m reading far too much into it, and I’ve become too PC for comfort, but problematic gay tropes are just everywhere in this movie, leaving one to label the film as regressive and reductive. For example: Dom meets up with an old childhood friend, who turns out to have been gay for him in their youth. “Lagi kitang binobosohan noon (I used to peep at you),” said his friend, a line that made me stop polishing a ring, because it was played for laughs. Another scene, a flashback, shows a young Rhey feeling up a sleeping Dom. Dom says that he wasn’t that drunk when he was felt up, so there was a measure of consent there; and that encounter was supposed to prove their love for each other. They do admit their love to each other, albeit on different planes: Dom loves Rhey as a very dear friend who has given him so much (because he helped pay for his tuition, helped raise his kids) while Rhey loves Dom romantically, spiritually, physically, etc. (because he is Dom). Any and all gravity this scene might have had been killed. I’ll spare you the details and tell you that Nora and Philip both die, and their young selves run towards the sea.

Why should you watch this film? Well, watch it for Nora, but lower your expectations, and just remember her as a living, imperfect relic. Otherwise, there’s a bevy of other, better choices for learning about being both queer and old; and they won’t make you smirk.

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