Thursday, April 23, 2020

Patay na si Hesus (Jesus is Dead, Victor Villanueva)

One happy family

Tolstoy started Anna Karenina with the statement: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." I'll take that as permission to like Victor Villanueva's darkish family comedy Patay na si Hesus (Jesus is Dead), about a family taking the four or so hours trip down the coast of  Cebu, from the island province's capital to Dumaguete City to attend the wake of their estranged father, the eponymous Hesus. The setup is obviously Little Miss Sunshine--dysfunctional family piles into van to take cross-country trip--but the ingredients and resulting dish are so distinctly Filipino I'd call this a valid variation on the original.

And why not? The premise is flexible enough to allow for tinkering with the recipe (instead of "alpha father, earth mother, suicidal gay uncle, drug-addict grandfather, anti-social son, beauty-pageant daughter" we have "earth mother, motivationally challenged baby brother, trans older brother, Down Syndrome eldest brother, lunatic aunt;" instead of a yellow-and-white Volkswagen we have a red-and-white taxi van, suitably miniaturized for narrow Asian roads). 

Where Sunshine's Uncle Frank sparingly doles out details of his homosexuality, Chai Fonacier's Jude is militantly upfront, insisting folks call him by his proper name (as opposed to 'Mary Jude') and acting as patriarch to his own family, down to the fit of jealousy thrown when he learns what his girlfriend Mary (Sheen Gener, who played Insiang in Tanghalang Pilipino's stage adaptation) has been up to in his absence. Where Sunshine's Grandpa Edwin spews profanities and talks of his heroin habit, Mailes Kanapi's Sister Linda stands radiant in her pure white habit and unspoken wide-eyed insanity (between Alan Arkin's sullen grandfather and Kanapi's smiling sister I think I'd feel more comfortable--and far safer--with the grandfather).

But that's the crazy stuff; what cements the bits of madness, gives the whole thing structure and emotional weight is the parent figure trying to keep it all together. Toni Collette and Greg Kinnear did a fine job as Sunshine's beleaguered parents, but Jaclyn Jose manages the same task just fine all by herself, though not without cost; as the film opens and a customer orders pork chop at her food stall, Jose's character takes a large breaded slab of meat out of a serving tray and with meat cleaver in one distracted hand proceeds to mince the chop into ground pork. "Are you all right?" co-worker Domeng (Publio Briones) asks. "Jesus is dead," she declares matter of factly. 

Jose who was known early in her career for her erotic work (Private Show; Takaw Tukso (Passion Play)), later known for her award-winning dramas (Ma Rosa) here takes a welcome comic turn as Iyay, the family matriarch. Her approach doesn't seem to differ much in either comedy or drama, and I for one am grateful: she plays the scene simply, going for truth rather than the easy laugh, and the humor emerges with little unnecessary effort. When she breaks the news about their father and the impending funeral trip, baby brother Jay (Melde Montanez) rebels: he can't go, he has things to do. Iyay's response is epic mother material: "Tomorrow is your father's funeral. You can still cancel your plan. The funeral can't be put on hold. There's no repeat performance. We can't dig up the corpse and bury it again just because you had prior plans." That Jose delivers her showcase speech in the musical cadences of the Visayan dialect only makes the moment funnier. 

The script by Fatrick Tabada (not familiar with the writer but he's apparently fond of burlesque wordplay) and Moira Lang (who--fun fact--worked on this right after she helped Lav Diaz on his ultrasolemn script for Norte, the End of History) simmers along nicely; like Jose's Iyay, it's the no-nonsense concrete holding the whole together. The direction by Victor Villanueva isn't especially distinctive but it's clean and clear, which is what a comedy basically needs. Villanueva I suspect is hampered by the fact that road trips in the Philippines aren't necessarily cinematic. O the scenery is beautiful (and there's one overhead shot of the van going up the curves of a drive--the emerald green of Cebu Island to the right, the luminous waters of the Cebu Straits to the left--that's breathtaking) but as vehicles on long roadways go the film doesn't contribute anything particular to the genre--you really want to watch it for the characters and their oddball interactions.  

Patay takes a few potshots at the Catholic faith--the family patriarch with his uncommon name, a beloved dog with an even more unusual moniker (Judas), Kanapi's one-of-a-kind demented nun--but the digs feel more affectionate than angry. Actually the whole is surprisingly lighthearted despite the morbid premise, or at least wears its grimmer aspects lightly on its sleeve. 

Unremarked or uncommented on by both viewers and critics is the film's central mystery: why does Iyay insist on dragging her whole family across the countryside to sit at her ex-husband's funeral? She doesn't love him, not anymore; she doesn't even seem to care. Even that one moment when she cracks and betrays a trace of emotion (the coffin collapsing as a result) the impulse seems ambiguous--was she angry because after all is said and done she still loves him, or was she angry because of the wasted effort and needless suffering? This exercise in social conventions has the faint unhappy air of being unwanted, even though it's the sense having to do something difficult yet somehow necessary that gives the film its sense of fascinating mystery. Not great, but one of the more enjoyable Filipino films of the 2010s, available on Vimeo on demand.

First published in Businessworld 4.17.20

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