Tuesday, January 05, 2021

Fan Girl (Antoinette Jadaone, 2020)

Fan service

Antoinette Jadaone's Fan Girl is a sneaky little comedy that starts off with a storyline planted firmly within familiar Jadaone territory (the constantly permeable membrane between showbiz fantasy and everyday reality a la Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay; the sad-funny interchanges that motor romantic comedies a la This Thing Called Tadhana). Jane (Charlie Dizon), who describes herself as real-life celebrity Paulo Avelino's 'number one fan,' skips afternoon class to attend a mall event promoting the star's latest movie; she manages to climb into the back of Paulo's pickup truck just as he drives away. 

The story of a fan girl stalking her movie star of choice recalls of course Lino Brocka's classic statement on the subject, Bona, and while Brocka's film feels fuller, more intricately textured, Jadaone's does manage a satisfyingly different take, serving up generous helpings of dark humor (Brocka, bless him, I always considered a master of melodrama but he struggled--or largely (and probably wisely) stayed away from--humor).

Jane falls asleep during the long trip from Metro Manila to the provinces; she wakes to find the pickup parked by the road, near a mansion with high locked gates. She peers through the gates--is that Paulo waving her in?--climbs over the wrought iron barrier with difficulty. She wanders into this or that dark room, spots him walking out onto an upstairs balcony half naked; tattooed to his back is a huge naked cobra woman. She may have imagined Paulo waving to her earlier--was this another figment of her imagination?

"Paulo?" she says in spite of herself, and her real adventures are off and literally running. I take care to describe this early sequence because while Jadaone handles the showbiz details--the mall promotions, the calls to agents, handlers, colleagues, the brief offscreen encounter involving traffic cops--with documentary realism, the director doesn't hesitate to insert the occasional surreal, Gothic detail (Paulo waving to Jane, Jane wandering through the darkened silent mansion). 

What follows is a night and day of wary approaches, uncomfortable chuckles, volcanic tantrums, uneasy rapprochement, quietly confessed revelations--sprinkled here and there with the occasional deftly realized and inserted fantasy sequence. Jane gazes up to Paulo with unalloyed adoration; she looks ready to do anything for him, anytime. Paulo looks down at Jane with a mix of bemusement contempt and just the slightest hint of older brother to younger sister, or at least streetwise sifu to young sidekick. 

It's a delicate high wire act, and Jadaone pulls it off with superb poise. Will Jane drive Paulo away with her unpredictable willfulness, her single-minded idolatry? Will she convince Paulo she's more than just a kid, maybe a possible romantic interest? Will Paulo finally alienate Jane with his rough demeanor and temperamental outbursts? The moment, the dynamic between the two, the feelings Jane holds for Paulo and vice versa shift by the second and the thrill of much of the film is the possibility that Jane's fantasies might be fulfilled, or dashed, or fulfilled after all--but with the idealized halo of Jane's soft-focus imagination harshly ripped apart. 

Comparing Charlie Dizon's acting to Nora's in Bona would be unfair; that was one of the superstar's greatest performance, a symphony of pathos, stoic endurance, subversive passivity. Charlie Dizon plays a high thin tune, fragile and fresh, that holds its own fascination: she not just looks and acts sixteen (she's twenty-four), but displays the petulance of a girl trying desperately to look all grown up--then does, suddenly, tumultuously. 

She's ably complemented by Paulo who gives us an unflattering portrait of privileged male toxicity enabled and magnified by money and celebrity status. Avelino is also the film's producer and may have contributed autobiographical details; that he should want to do so is uncommonly brave of him, not to mention intriguing.

And yet Paulo's performance isn't entirely unsympathetic--he reluctantly, almost grudgingly, reveals a vulnerable side, a side that Jane eventually uncovers and responds to--and here the mix quietly turns explosive. 

It's a superb script; Lilia Cuntapay may arguably be Jadaone's most wildly original, and Tadhana her most deeply felt (she poured ten years' experience of love and loss into that picture), but Fan Girl shows amazing empathetic imagination. Again unfair to compare to Bona (but what film can compare to Bona?): where Jadaone charts the course of Jane and Paulo's relationship mostly in a single location over the course of some forty-eight hours, Cenen Ramones' script develops Bona (Aunor) and Gardo's (Philip Salvador) relationship over the course of years, and the catalogue of who said what did what to whom and why can't even begin to be sorted out, the ending a different kind of explosive climax. And while Brocka officially only directed--actually he's known to fiddle extensively with his scripts--it's possible he may have injected his own relationship with his male protege in this film about a beautiful male actor and his adoring fan. 

What Jadaone does give us is her streamlined updated take, with cellphones, selfies, social media, and all, and the gratifyingly honest moment when Paulo touches his crotch, then sniffs his fingers (C'mon guys--who among us has never done that? Be honest now.). By making Paulo a more aggressive toxic male (as opposed to the more passive Gardo in Bona), with genuine if limited wealth and power (the traffic cops let him go in exchange for a signed movie poster), Jadaone links Paulo to every seated fascist today, from the (soon to be expelled) orangutang in the White House to the senile baboon in Malacanang Palace (a little over a year to go, alas). People smother them with kisses, attend their superspreader rallies, treat them like rock stars--one of the best possible outcomes is that people learn the truth, if at a cost; worst is that people will never learn ("The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs!"), that we will cling to our self-manufactured self-elected strongmen because we have nothing else to look forward to in our miserable lives. One of the best of the year, easily. 

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