And here I was, thinking Pa-Siyam (Nine Days, 2004) was Erik Matti's best work--Matti, the director of such seminal works of Philippine Cinema as Ekis (Crossed, 1999), Dos Ekis (Double Cross, 2001), and Prosti (Prostitute, 2002)--one of I suppose you can say my favorite Filipino filmmakers, if only because he's given me endless opportunities for honing my critical blade.
Pa-Siyam showed what Matti was capable when he dropped his many affectations and concentrated on storytelling, reined in his self-indulgent style enough to serve the story more than itself; the result is pleasing, like De Palma doing a conventional action film (The Untouchables) or Cronenberg a neo-Western (A History of Violence) albeit on a lower, cruder level.
Comes along Gagamboy (Spider-boy), and suddenly Matti unfettered makes sense--the excessive attention to production design; the uber-gorgeous shots so carefully lit and planned; the near-nonexistence of plot, or total lack of interest at evoking everyday reality; the hilariously over-the-top acting style that has defeated excellent actors such as Albert Martinez, Jaime Fabregas, Raymond Bagatsing, Gloria Romero (but not, oddly enough, the great filmmaker Celso Ad. Castillo, who in a tiny cameo in Dos Ekis momentarily set the screen on fire (could he have been directing himself?), then promptly stepped aside, leaving the rest of the movie to fade away into oblivion). All this time, Matti had been trying to make not realistic movies but comic-book extravaganzas, larger-than-life features with simple, one-sentence plots and simple, single-trait characters identifiable by a quick label (The Superhero; The Love Interest; The Rival), the whole held together not by narrative or conceptual integrity but by sheer visual exuberance.
Well, actually, it's been obvious all along what Matti was trying to do; I just wasn't impressed. Not till now, when he'd dropped all pretensions to serious filmmaking and actually tried to do an honest-to-goodness comic-book movie.
The movie starts as all comic-book movies do, with a creation myth: in this case toxic waste (what, radioactive waste not good enough anymore?) in the form of a bright orange goo (it resembles the sweet-n-spicy sauce we dip our lumpia shanghai (fried egg rolls) in) spilling on both a cockroach and a spider. The spider doesn't bite former ice cream vendor Junie (Vhong Navarro)--no such coyness for us Filipinos. Instead the arachnid jumps whole right into the hero's mouth, provoking a serious of seizures (I'm not sure if it's wholly digitized, but Navarro being an able physical comedian I'm not sure much of it wasn't) and digitally animated renditions of genetic change (lifted straight out of Raimi's Spiderman movies) that ends in Junie possessing spider powers (including the ability to exude that bright orange sweet-n-spicy sauce between the palms of his hands).
Ah, but what of the cockroach? Turns out it, too, is a carrier of strange forces, and it promptly scampers forth to bite Dodoy (Jay Manalo, obviously having a lot of fun), Junie's rival both in the ice cream vending business, and for the hand of ghetto girl and local beauty pageant host Liani (the lovely if surgically enhanced Aubrey Miles). But if the spider was kind enough to simply lend Junie its super powers, the more malevolent roach (apologies to roaches everywhere for the presumptuous and prejudicial adjectives) inflicts a more radical makeover on Dodoy--he emerges bigger, buffer, with a distinctly grayish outer shell and a pair of roach antennae (why so isn't explained--outer beauty and goodness being inextricably linked, I suppose, in Filipino comic book movies (or are the filmmakers trying to make things as plain and easy as possible (handsome--good; ugly--bad) for their proposed target audience?)).
There are flaws--Matti can't keep the momentum up all the time and when the invention flags, the movie just flops over and lies there, waving its little legs (Matti, like his menter Peque Gallaga, has serious pacing issues). Some of the plot points could have been dropped without doing much harm to the picture (the passing vampire (don't ask) and the longish scene of a street gang re-creating their crime come to mind). Rene Boy Facunla does an outrageous gay parody of our Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (down to the huge mole, buck teeth, and husky butch voice), but other than standing there and looking presidential (I swear, they could be twin sisters) he really doesn't add much to the party.
It's fun; better even than Raimi's Spiderman movies, for several reasons: first, Vhong Navarro is much funnier than Toby Maguire could ever hope to be (the movie would just be a lot of dumb ideas thrown together, would be nothing without Vhong); second, Vhong does most of his fight scenes without digital assists (being a dancer he's very limber, and like, oh, Jackie Chan and Stephen Chow, physically eloquent); third, it takes everything corny and implausible and stupid about the genre and instead of hiding or trying to resolve them, parades them proudly up and down the street, like freshly donned underwear.
That latter reason is no small bonus; ever since the recent fad in superserious superheroes--Raimi's Spiderman movies, Nolan's Batman Begins, Singer's Superman Returns--no one's cracked a smile or even admitted there's anything laughable about someone running or flying about in their colored tights. Thank goodness Matti,who finally gets a pass from me (well, he still has Scorpio Nights 2, Ekis, Dos Ekis and Prosti to answer for), has the guts or shamelessness or sheer cluelessness to point such an obvious thing out.
(The picture is available with English subtitles on Netflix)