Cinemalaya 2012: Requieme! – Death in Drag

 

Using a spoof of the Gianni Versace-Andrew Cunanan case as a springboard, Loy Arcenas’ Requieme!  takes on the absurdities of Philippine politics and bureaucracy, and also comments on how media, culture and society all figure into how we Filipinos play out our lives, and keep messing with even our deaths.

Lamentably, Requieme! goes from being ambitiously sprawling to ending up all over the place. Its humor goes from broad to black, while the drama swings from melo- to meta-, and then back again, all in a messy progression that’s more dizzying than disarming. It’s rather frustrating because the bones of a great Dickensian satire are all in there – memorable characters with genuinely human interactions, a strong sense of place across two main settings, biting sociopolitical commentary – but the execution is just a tad muddled for it to really resonate. You can easily miss out on or gloss over the truly brilliant moments, while the throwaway jokes and more self-indulgent scenes may be the ones that stick with you. There’s a recurring subplot about the corpse of a hapless Filipino overseas worker being flown around the world in a series of unfortunate events, which I admit may be good for a few laughs. But was this one-note gag, completely unrelated to the main storyline, really worth the running time and production resources devoted to it? It’s admirable how Arcenas addresses the homophobia that still festers within the superficially macho (but inherently matriarchal) Philippine society. And I’m sure all the slurs and innuendo directed towards an obviously effeminate target like Joanna may feel like the death by a thousand cuts for transsexuals in real life. But Arcenas seems to show one cut too many, belaboring the point past common sympathy, blunting the effect of the big climax.

I’m not one to complain about sex scenes either, and it’s always refreshing to see different forms of intimacy between unconventional pairings. But after a while you can’t help but think: “Ok, I really get that they really care for each other, and they express it through sex. Can we just move on with the story now?” You also realize that fully a third of the exposition is delivered via simulated news footage or radio commentary. It’s effective and necessary at some points, but it feels a lot like the film leans more on telling instead of showing to get the story moving. Also, it’s understandable and maybe even an expected part of the indie aesthetic for the mock reportage to look and sound amateurish, even cartoonish. But then these clash with the sober realism and naturalistic performances that truly elevate the film, at least when they’re allowed to play out. Anthony Falcon’s restrained, no-nonsense turn as the well-meaning transsexual Joanna continues a welcome shift in Philippine film from portraying gays and transsexuals as flamboyant clowns or hysterical bitches to more composed and truly three-dimensional human beings. As expected, celebrated indie actress Shamaine Buencamino brings her A-game to a complicated role as the ambitious, conflicted Swanie, a big fish in the small pond of provincial politics and society.

For me, it’s in the less bombastic moments when the film’s emotional and satirical heft is really flexed. As in a scene when Swanie finally tracks down her cousin Sylvia, an illegal alien in the US. The interplay of emotions on Buencamino’s face while you hear real grief and desperation in Sylvia’s voice is one such arresting episode sticking out amidst the murky waters. I’ll add to that any scene with crusty neighbourhood old-timer Endong (Rener Concepcion) dealing with the funeral arrangements for his best pal Jake in his own bumbling yet earnest way. As for the funnier bits, a female elder’s gusto in recounting the more lurid town gossip and also the mounting desperation in Swanie’s efforts at sociopolitical one-upmanship show a clever wit that could have made the most of this morbid comedy. I honestly believe that with the same footage and general storyline, if instead of the current slapdash job on the editing and musical scoring, they could’ve somehow managed to hand it over to pros at the same level or with the stylistic confidence of say… Sally Menke and Thomas Newman, then Requieme! can burn on all cylinders as it was meant to. In this case, death by a thousand cuts would be a good thing.

 

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