The end result is--well, it's not the funniest Filipino film ever made (there are Dolphy films that are much funnier), but I think it's the subtlest, wittiest, and arguably most demented. The tape is smuggled through an unexpectedly (and unbelievably, for anyone who's actually had to deal with them) Philippine Customs by a hapless innocent bystander (Christopher de Leon) and his friends (Jay Ilagan, Charo Santos, Sandy Andolong); along the way, they tangle with the Chinese mafia (led by the imperious Armida Siguion-Reyna), a mysterious priest with a painfully loud crick in his neck (Leo Martinez), a legion of sweetened soybean vendors, an intimidatingly porcine woman wrestler, and more.
But what makes the film--for me, anyway--is the scene where a flock of nuns waddle, penguinlike, into a common room. They hum a worshipful hymn; they crowd around one nun (the rotund Nanette Inventor), who looks up, heavenward, while an organ plays sonorously. Suddenly, a crash of chords; the camera plunges down on the ring of nuns, who shake their hands at the lenses; Inventor lifts her habit, revealing a fishnet-stockinged, voluptuously curved leg; the nuns promptly launch into a no-holds barred rendition of Bigyan Mo Kami ng Tinapay (Give Us Our Daily Bread).
The choreography isn't anything special--standard Broadway fare, with a few moves borrowed from some Vegas chorus line--but it's such a superbly timed joke (and de Leon's films are all about superb timing) that even when you know it's coming (and the joke anyway is obvious and labored) it still sends tingles up one's spine. It's one of the strongest expressions of de Leon's cynicism (which surfaces more often than one might think--in brief moments in Batch '81; in short form in Aliwan Paradise, his sequel to and satire of Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (this being the film that cemented his reputation as a visual artist (he was Maynila's cinematographer), he was effectively biting the hand that made him (then again (and de Leon is all about jokes within jokes), he's biting his own hand, since he was Maynila's producer as well); in Bayaning Third World (Third World Hero, 1999)). It goes hand-in-glove with de Leon's suspicions that the Catholic Church is the biggest show around, full of glitz and lights and music and not much else (the song's repeated request for immediate sustenance is implicitly answered by the arrival of the smuggled opium (as in: for the masses)). It fits in with the overarching theme found amongst de Leon's films, that the quotidian surface of Filipino life conceals a teeming, often decadent, often perverse underworld, ready to be revealed at the rise of a skirt. The number may lack production values, but more than makes up for them with a keyboard-banging melody, and the exuberance with which the ecclesiastical performers belt it out.
The film continues on to have a rousing finale involving the Chinese Mafia, the Japanese Yakuza, the dancing nuns, de Leon (Christopher, not Mike) and his intrepid friends, eyepopping sets (by Ms. Villavicencio) reminiscent of James Bond movies and the Academy Award ceremony, a samurai sword duel, the arrival of the ever-slow but always sure Philippine Constabulary, and, of course, a happy ending with two simultaneous weddings, backed by a full symphony orchestra. The ending is a happy mix of melody and lunacy, but it's that one number (Bigyan Mo Po Kami) that I'll remember--that sense of serene sanctity, punctured by an overstuffed pair of fishnet stockings. I can see in my mind the priests in the theater audience gasping in shock and outrage, their eyes glittering in the enfolding darkness.
(Kakabakaba Ka Ba? is available on dvd, along with other Mike de Leon films. Am not sure if they have subtitles--which is more than enough reason to strike an acquaintance with a Filipino, lure him into one's home (an offer of dinner--and real dinner, please, involving meat and plentiful carbohydrates, not some Caucasian notion of cocktail finger fare--might help), and ask him to perform benshi duties. That, or learn Tagalog. Anyway, Mike's such a visual director, his films are worth buying without subtitles...)