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The Statesman

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The Statesman

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    Is this Paradise?

    “Gawad Kalinga” means “to give care” in Tagalog, one of the main languages of the Philippines. In the short film trilogy “Paraiso: Three Stories of Hope” that kicked off the Wang Center’s fall program of Asian and Asian-American films this semester, we watched three stories from three distinct Filipino filmmakers. All three shorts tie into the Gawad Kalinga movement/organization working to rebuild the Philippines through leadership, education, and- their most exhibited aspect-building homes in communities destroyed by either extreme poverty or natural disasters. Although true to their subtitle, the three films suffer from carrying the burden of promoting the Gawad Kalinga organization that funded them, as they each in their own way pay an awkward homage to the Western companies that give money (and their names) to the villages they help rebuild.

    Of the three films, the second one, “My Brother Elvis,” is the most sophisticated and unself-conscious. It tells the story of a precocious, well-to-do yuppie couple living in a wealthy suburb of Manila, enchanted by a delightful street-urchin they decide to adopt. This young boy, the eponymous Elvis, is ingratiating and funny, despite having a propensity for stealing and annoying his adopted brother Pepe with constant questions and jokes. The colors are bright and alive, the characters indulge in some sitcom slapstick, and the action moves along briskly as the two boys set off for a mini-odyssey to get Pepe to summer camp. Though the themes are obvious and the gags all too familiar, the production is brought off with gusto and the humor bumps the story along. The Gawad Kalinga theme stays in the background, mentioned only in the fact that the couple helps build houses for the organization, which gives this film a lightness and naturalness that the other two, “Even if Heaven Cries” and “Marie,” never achieve.

    The first and third films of the trilogy essentially suffer from the same problems: they are trite, badly-written, and utterly transparent in their slavish homage to Gawad Kalinga. “Even if Heaven Cries” tells the story of a woman, Jocelyn, who survives a mudslide in her village in Leyte, only to find that her eldest daughter and pregnant sister did not survive. She almost succumbs to a nervous breakdown before being brought back to reality by her husband, and the promise of a new life in a house built by Gawad Kalinga. In “Marie,” the action begins pre-9/11 on Long Island, with a loving husband Rudy (a Filipino) and wife Marie (a native Long Islander) celebrating their 25th anniversary. Notwithstanding the fact that the actors are not old enough to be celebrating such a landmark anniversary, the film cannot pull the audience adequately into the rushed, cliched story of a trip to the Philippines, Marie’s desire to “help” the street kids of Manila, her death in the World Trade Center, and Rudy’s subsequent depression and final decision to become a spokesperson for Gawad Kalinga and make Marie’s “dream come true.”

    The obvious ‘product placement’ aside, “Even if Heaven Cries” and “Marie” are awkwardly written, with excessive exposition put into phrases such as “I wish I could help these people. I just don’t know how”; or “I think we might move to Manila-there are too many landslides here” (cue the inevitable landslide). Rather than show, these short films choose to tell, as if the audience cannot be counted on to connect the dots. One of the most poignant and affecting scenes of “Even if Heaven Cries” occurs not when a magical, possibly holy, light appears in the buried house so that Jocelyn can locate her youngest daughter Jane, but when her husband tells her the next day that there was also a landslide in her sister’s town-and no one survived. The sister’s off-screen death is more tragic for being unseen, as compared to cliched shots of mud-covered children being pulled out from under rubble.

    Celebrated Filipino actors Maricel Soriano, as Jocelyn, and Cesar Montano as Rudy, are wasted in roles that pander to corporate-sponsored activism and function as nothing more than an infomercial disguised as tear-jerker “true story” tales. Michael V. and Carmi Martin are delightful as the double mint couple in “My Brother Elvis,” though the real show stealers are Gian Bernabe, as the sullen older brother Pepe, and Paulken Bustillo, as the ingratiating kid who, as we find out in the end, stops eating pebbles,a sign of an eating disorder common in neglected children, as the final words on the screen inform us. One hopes we might see these talented actors, largely unknown in the United States, again in some films not quite so indebted to an organization whose undoubted good works should not have to ‘sell themselves’ quite so blatantly, and instead allow the powers of fiction and story-telling to create a deeper, truer understanding for the people of the Philippines.

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