ASIAN VALUES DVD REVIEW
- who illuminated the lurid world of toreros or live-sex
performers in Boatman and who painted a vivid portrait of the GRO
girl (or "Guest Relations Officer," euphemism for high-class call
girl) in Segurista (Dead Sure) - explores the gambling casinos and
railway communities of urban Manila in Biyaheng Langit (Paradise
The film was
twice given an "X" rating by the Movie Television and Classification
Board (MTRCB) for its frank sex scenes and intense violence, both
of which have been described as "gratuitous." I don't know of any
good definitions of "gratuitous" sex and violence, but I do feel
that if Aguiluz is to portray the heaven and hell of modern Philippine
society with any realism, he has to be free to show what he feels
needs to be shown. I also don't believe in giving an "X" rating
to any film, especially when this prevents said film's commercial
screening; it suggests the rather insulting idea that there are
some images or subject matter the adult Filipino can't handle.
tells the story of Bea, a young Filipino-American (Joyce Jimenez).
Bea is bored; all she wants in life is to raise $5,000 so that she
can live independently in the United States. To relieve her boredom,
Bea follows her grandmother (Nida Blanca) to the casino, where they
gamble all night; this is where she meets Danny (Mark Anthony Fernandez),
a runner who collects money from the tables for Bosing (Bembol Roco).
the act of putting what you have at stake, in the hope of winning
more - is the underlying theme of Biyaheng Langit; as Bea's grandmother
puts it, "I gamble to console myself, to keep from feeling lonely."
Bea feels the same; that's why she has a one-night stand with Danny,
and that's why she persuades Danny to join her in her less-than-brilliant
plan - to pour their life's savings into a one-night run at the
tables, hoping to win big.
lose big, and run for their lives. Danny takes Bea home, to a squalid
community of shanties propped up beside the city's railways; here
Bea learns of another kind of gambling, the gamble of the urban
poor. Of people whose entire lives are put at stake without their
ever asking for it, who either take years to die of malnutrition
or who, in a careless moment, can be instantly killed by an oncoming
is more than a recreation for them, it's a way of life - yet they
still have to wear the same poker face, still put on the same brave,
desperately defiant front as any cardholder at the tables. More,
they still manage to care for each other - "Auntie" (Vangie Labalan)
and Solomon (RJ Leyran) both look out for Danny, an orphaned loner
the community has unofficially adopted; Danny in turn looks out
for "Tenga" (Christian Alvear). Bea learns that even in these hopeless
circumstances human warmth and caring is possible; she learns that
even in the hole she's in, love is somehow possible.
The "hell" of a bad losing streak in the "heavenly" luxury of a
casino; the "heaven" of camaraderie and compassion in the "hell"
of a squatter community. Granted, the theme is melodramatic and
hardly fresh... but it's one that the film's writers - Aguiluz,
his film editor Mirana Bhunjun, Iangco de la Cruz, and novelist
Rey Ventura - lend their talents and their conviction to.
particular, is the key to the film's script; he began his career
writing cheap romance novels, and he knows the value of old and
melodramatic themes; he knows that people are quick to recognize
them, and he knows that despite today's cynicism and post-modernist
posturing, people still believe in them. Today, Ventura is better
known as the writer of Underground In Japan, a novel chronicling
his real-life experiences as an illegal immigrant in Japan.
The book was
praised by The Village Voice and, in an article in Asiaweek magazine,
by Donald Richie, legendary film critic of Japanese cinema - yet
essentially Ventura is still doing the same thing he did in his
cheap romances: writing about love and loss, life and struggle.
The difference between the romances and Underground is the strong
material; the difference between Biyaheng Langit and practically
any other Filipino melodrama today is the film's realistic and detailed
texture (brought out through exhaustive research), and its often
high level of acting.
brings out the best in his actors; I remember Ronnie Lazaro's relentlessly
ambitious "torero" in Boatman, or Albert Martinez's humane and humanly
frail Rizal in Rizal sa Dapitan (Rizal In Dapitan). I remember Helen
Gamboa, playing the definitive Flor Contemplacion in Bagong Bayani
(The Last Wish" - one of the best performances by a Filipina actress
I've ever seen in the '90s.
in Biyaheng Langit are consistently good - Vangie Labalan as the
matronly "Auntie;" RJ Leyran as the "wise" Solomon, Danny's best
friend; John Arcilla as a treacherous henchman; Bembol Roco as the
repellent "Bosing." Joyce Jimenez in the crucial role of Bea is
adequate (with her clothes off, she's more than adequate) - but
the film really belongs to Mark Anthony Fernandez, as Danny.
a hard period of rehabilitation for drug abuse, Fernandez has lost
all his baby fat and looks startlingly leaner, more predatory; at
the same time he has the charisma to take over as the film's ambiguous
hero. His Danny is a fascinating mix of contradictions - smart and
quick on his feet, yet not too smart that he doesn't fall for Bea's
charms. He feels an unbending loyalty to Bosing but when Bosing
betrays him he doesn't hesitate to fight back, with a volatility
and anger that this actor simply wasn't capable of a few years ago.
Magazine, Issue #52, Summer 2001. The article also appears in Noel
Vera's Critic After Dark: A Review Of Philippine Cinema (BigO Books).
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