Raya Martin made his name as a pioneer of experimental cinema in the Philippines. While his more recent films have perhaps drawn increasingly closer to the mainstream, it might still come as a surprise that his latest feature is a retro teen movie of the kind that no-one really makes anymore save as an exercise in nostalgia. As the title may imply Death of Nintendo, scripted by Valerie Castillo Martinez, is indeed a nostalgia fest set in the post-Marcos early ‘90s, in a sense the dying days of the golden age of Mario, but it’s also a subtle critique of contemporary Filipino masculinity, a uncoming-of-age drama in which boys never really grow up but continue to occupy a space of perpetual adolescence.
In a nebulous early ‘90s Manila, 13-year-old Paolo (Noel Comia Jr.) is an introspective rich kid obsessed with playing Nintendo of which his fiercely overprotective, helicopter mother Patricia (Agot Isidro) largely approves because it keeps him home in his room where she can keep an eye on him. She’s less keen, however, on Paolo’s circle of friends which includes both fellow rich kids Gilligan (Jiggerfelip Sementilla) and his sister Mimaw (Kim Chloie Oquendo) whose father has recently run off to America with another woman, and Kachi (John Vincent Servilla) who lives in the slums with his lothario older brother Badong (Jude Matthew Servilla) and sex worker mother Shirley (Angelina Canapi). Meanwhile, the gang’s arch nemesis, the uncouth and distinctly mean Filipino-American returnee Jimbo (Cayden Williams), is intent on making all their lives a misery and Paolo is in the first flushes of adolescent romance mooning over popular kid Shiara (Elijah Alejo). The upshot is that the boys are keen to become men as quickly as possible by undergoing the Tuli ritual circumcision, travelling to the remote village witch doctor who operated on Badong and apparently turned him into the top stud he is today.
As all of the father figures are absent, Badong is the closest paternal presence that any of them have though in real terms his example may not be much of one to follow. He currently has a steady job working at the local Jollibee, but as Kachi fails to realise is also being courted by the petty gangsters of the slums, while his mother is quick to warn him about his promiscuous ways and possibilities of getting a girl into trouble. Neverthless, what all the guys want is to instantly transform into an idealised vision of masculinity largely gained from movies and pop culture rather than the weedy boys they currently feel themselves to be. Tellingly they see something of this in Jimbo and are intimidated by him because of it, later losing their fear after realising that he has not yet undergone the ritual and is therefore still a boy himself.
Mimaw, meanwhile, who has always been a tomboy is confronted by notions of idealised femininity after she becomes friends with Shiara and her coterie of popular girls. Allowing the other young women to give her makeovers, she wonders if it’s OK that her friendship group is her brother and his friends and why it is she’s more comfortable in jeans and T-shirts than skirts and heels. When Paolo asks her to put in a good word for him with Shiara she’s conflicted, and though it’s suggested that she’s got a crush on the most sensitive of the boys, we can’t help wondering if it’s not Shiara that she may secretly be drawn to.
In any case, as the boys spend their time on childish competitions of masculinity, it’s Mimaw who’s perhaps beginning to realise that she wants something more out of life. Eventually, the NES is replaced by a SEGA Mega Drive, the boys having completed the ritual and become “men”, wearing jeans and smart shirts with greased hair yet looking almost identical, still boys on the inside. Mimaw prepares to move on, leaving the boys behind as they again suggest video games or basketball only for Kachi to decline because he doesn’t want to muss his hair and Gilligan because he’s got a hot date to prepare for later in the evening. The boys, it seems, have only swapped their games for girls, while Mimaw has truly grown-up, something telling us this was her story all along only no was really her paying much attention. Bathed in the golden glow of an eternal, adolescent summer in which there are earthquakes and eruptions figurative and literal as the boys edge their way towards a longed for manliness, Death of Nintendo is perhaps less conventional than it first seemed while filled with the ache of nostalgia for a more innocent era.
Death of Nintendo streams in California until Oct. 31 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.
Original trailer (English subtitles)