Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Last Pinoy Action King (Andrew Leavold)


Meat and potatoes

Filipino film enthusiast and fledgling documentarian Andrew Leavold's The Last Pinoy Action King, his sophomore feature, doesn't have the bizarre vibe of his The Search for Weng-Weng--doesn't feature at its center a three-foot-plus strangely charismatic enigma, who remains a cipher by film's end but whose story has at least been given a good going-over. No, Leavold's subject this time is a hardworking, undeniably pretty, quietly charismatic action-movie star with bona-fide boxing skills, a relatively low-key personal life, and no real scandals to speak of.  

Fernandez made a career of what assets he had--in terms of popularity if not boxoffice* second only to the inimitable Fernando Poe, Jr.. Leavold apparently took his cue from Fernandez and serves up a meat-and-potatoes documentary, no artsy-fartsy frills (though at one point he does use jittery video footage to suggest hopelessly blinkered love), just a story simply told.


*(By most accounts Fernandez was popular at the boxoffice--but figures for actual sales are kept under tighter guard than Mossack Fonseca's client list, and what few numbers the producers release are looked upon, and rightly so, with extreme skepticism) 

The documentary's first half amounts to a briefly sketched oral history of mainstream Filipino filmmaking in the '60s, from the breakup of the studio systems to the rise of independent outfits, sometimes stars big enough to establish their own companies. One of the biggest was Fernando Poe, whose shadow looms large in Fernadez's life as friend, inspiration, and occasional co-star. 

Poe and Fernandez shared many qualities: both play themselves onscreen, both had their biggest successes in the action genre (with a good chunk of the movies based on true-life characters). Poe on occasion ventured into fantasy (the Panday movies) and historical epic (Asedillo; Agila; Santiago!) and managed to work with prestige directors (Gerardo de Leon, Eddie Romero, Lino Brocka (once) and Celso Ad. Castillo); Fernandez if anything stayed with the tried and true: modern police, crime, or military dramas. He would play the misunderstood criminal, the beleagured law-enforcement officer, the maverick soldier, the common man caught in a bad situation; sometimes (thanks to his dark good looks) he was the comic lover boy, sometimes he would play a Muslim,  and that's about the extent of his range.**

**(Odd, but the actor's father Dr. Gregorio Fernandez (he had a degree in dentistry) was a considerable filmmaker (Malvarosa) and his son Mark Anthony has done interesting work for both Tikoy Aguiluz (Biyaheng Langit) and Lav Diaz (Hesus Rebolusyunaryo)--which kind of gives lie to the title of this doc)

Which matters less than you might think. What Leavold gives us is an affectionate portrait of a basically decent man; if the end result is unadventurous it's also surprisingly moving, more so since Fernandez is so obviously loved, by both fans and co-workers (possibly his finest single achievement was pushing for overtime pay for industry workers--an issue that always needed addressing and if anything requires further reform). His pictures may be remembered more for being well-crafted examples of a disreputable genre--termite craft more than termite art, of the purest kind--than for anything groundbreaking, but they will likely be remembered, and with affection.

Leavold's documentary does best with the interviews and anecdotes, but one in particular summed up for me Fernandez's unpretentious, clear-eyed attitude towards his career and celebrity status: coming home from a shoot with Joey Padilla (his cousin and co-star) he points and declares: "That's where they'll bury me."

"Huh? That's the Hero's Memorial Park. You some kind of hero?"

"No, I'll be planted just outside the fence, so they'll mistake me for one."

(The Last Pinoy Action King will be screening from April 8 to 15 at Cinema '76, 5 pm weekdays, 12 pm weekend, doubled with several of Rudy Fernandez's movies; more details here) 

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