Saturday, July 18, 2009

Last Supper No. 3 (Veronica Velasco, 2009)




Maricel Soriano (in a hilarious cameo) with Joey Paras

My article on one of this year's Cinemalaya entries

Law and ordure

Veronica Velasco's Last Supper No. 3 (2009) starts out as a droll account of a semi-chaotic advertising shoot, causing my heart to slowly sink--no, I thought to myself; not yet another movie about the advertising industry. Doesn't matter how witty or well-observed they may be, I have a longstanding prejudice against advertising pictures…seen enough over the years to fill a Metro Manila phonebook. Seriously.

There's no challenge to making these movies; most people in the Filipino film industry work in advertising, which is their bread and butter when they're not involved in a feature film production. It's a not completely unfounded suspicion of mine that most characters in Philippine movies are in advertising because it's the business the filmmakers know best. It's worse than lazy filmmaking, it's knee-jerk storytelling.

Thankfully, Velasco's picture quickly becomes something considerably more interesting, a comic nightmare of an odyssey through the Philippine legal system. The story is based on Winston Acuyong's actual experiences involving a piece of lost property (in the movie, the iconic Last Supper tapestry that seems to hang over about 90% of Filipino dining tables) and complicated by a related case of Serious Physical Injury (the plaintiff attacked the defendant with a belt; the co-defendant fought back, injuring the plaintiff's nose; the plaintiff came back at both defendants with what looks like a knockoff sword). The picture feels like a portable Filipino version of Charles Dicken's Bleak House, with its own version of the novel's endless "Jarndyce and Jarndyce," a last will and testament case involving years of litigation and seventy thousands pounds sterling (the equivalent of fifteen million dollars in today's currency).

Castwise the film is full of fresh faces making a fresh impression on the big screen; much of the story turns on Joey Paras as Acuyong's fictional proxy Wilson Nanawa, the hapless production assistant who loses the ill-fated rug. Paras is unapologetically gay (except when he has to use his man-voice to stop a speeding jeep), and unapologetically the hero of the story (would have been nice to have given him a boyfriend to come home to, but films must shatter one gay stereotype at a time, I suppose). Paras has a wheedling, put-upon voice he uses to great comic effect as a defense mechanism when, well, being put-upon (which is most of the time); you feel the voice become less and less a defensive pose and more and more a sincere expression of unbearable weariness as the months pile on (the case lasted an exhausting two and a half years) and thousands of pesos are poured into his legal black hole.

Along the way we have able support from a host of comic actors--Beverly Salviejo, Mhalouh Crisologo among others. On occasion a major screen star will have a small cameo--Ricky Davao as a rough-hewn cop, Maricel Soriano as a dyed-in-yellow office worker (her side business of ordering a packed lunch is about peerless, with a wonderful little ironic punchline at the end), and best of all Liza Lorena as a dead-eyed whacko grotesque, probably driven mad by years of litigation. A Dickensian brew of rich side characters, indeed.

Velasco seems to know the two basic rules of comedy filmmaking: lucid camerawork (Charlie Chaplin kept his setups ridiculously simple, to the point that people doubted he was a great filmmaker--now that's great filmmaking), and pacing, pacing, pacing, pacing. I may have a quarrel with one or two pieces of music on her soundtrack (sometimes the tune tries too hard to remind us that this is a comedy, and what you're seeing is supposed to be funny), but the several songs that accompany Wilson through the corridors of legal bureaucracy wonderfully emphasize the Sisyphean nature of his trek, down to the glum rhythm of his endless slog.

As for the courthouse in which much of the action (or complete lack of) takes place, Velasco achieves something a little more special, a distinct character with a charisma all its own. The courthouse is a massive camera presence, with thick concrete walls and a sickly-looking paint job that hilariously evokes both the yellow-ribbon fad of the Aquino Administration (one of the worse in Philippine history when it came to legal ineptitude and needless complication) and the kind of ultramodern building renovation that is supposed to attract more tourists (Bright colors! Spanish architecture!). As the camera winds its way up staircases lined with wide Narra-wood steps right out of the Second World War, we ourselves become aware of the winding nature of Wilson's journey, how it never seems to move in the obvious, predictable manner, how at any moment one may drop to one's knees from dizziness and sheer distance (one might also look at Alan J. Pakula's All the President's Men (1976), where an overhead camera invokes the drama of a great mystery hidden under a mountain of paperwork).

This may be the first and most successful film ever to deal with the Filipino legal system (to be fair, there aren't a lot of Filipino films on the system to start with, and--a comedy? No surprise there). The film's courthouse may be the first and most successful attempt to re-create Dicken's Chancery in Southeast Asia--the very incarnation of hell on earth, duly notarized, signed by witnesses, typed out in triplicate.

First published in Businessworld, 7/24/09

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