Big Night! (Jun Robles Lana, 2021)

In the opening scenes of Jun Robles Lana’s darkly comic farce Big Night! a young man is shot in the head by another young man, this one wearing a motorcycle helmet with its visor down, who calmly walks away and gets back on the back of the bike he arrived on his friend then driving them both away. Of course people are shocked but then again not all that much, they barely pause despite the fact that his man, Ronron, was well known to them and no one really thought he had much to do with drugs. Beautician Dharna (Christian Bables) gossips about the killing with his friend Biba but gives it little thought before returning to his day, so normalised has death on the streets become in Duterte’s Philippines. 

Dharna may not have given much thought to extrajudicial killings, but then it’s different when it’s you who might be next in the firing line as he discovers when Biba gets an advance view of the following day’s “Watch List” from her law enforcement boyfriend. What ensues is a kafkaesque quest to clear his name though there’s no real “official” path towards getting off a watch list when you’re on one. His boyfriend Zeus who is due to perform in a “Big Night” pageant at a local gay bar that very night suggests simply fleeing to another district, but flight implies guilt and as Dharna points out he’ll lose all his customers if he has to move to another area and neither of them have the money to start all over again somewhere new. Like many of Dharna’s friends and acquaintances Zeus doesn’t seem to share his concern. “The police won’t bother you if you’re not doing anything illegal” he naively advises, sure it’s all just a random mistake that soon will blow over but otherwise so numbed to the idea of extrajudicial killing that he doesn’t really think too much of it and is mainly annoyed that Dharna has lost interest in helping finish his costume for the big show. 

Neither of them can think of a reason why Dharna, under his full legal name, would have been placed on a list as he’s not a drug user and doesn’t know anyone who is. He does, however, have some useful connections including local law enforcement official Cynthia who isn’t terribly interested or helpful but manipulates his anxiety to force him to help her out by filling in for her regular mortician, Connie, who has mysteriously not shown up for work. The morgue is currently overflowing, Cynthia making a dark joke that undertaking is a growth industry while revealing that there are so many bodies in part because families have to pay a fee to get them back and most of those involved in extrajudicial killings are from the slums so they can’t afford it. Even so, she explains to Dharna that they get more donations when families can see the body which is why he’s supposed to make them up to look as good as they can despite many of them having sustained gunshot wounds to the head or face. 

Cynthia sends him on to local community leader Roja warning him that he’s “allergic to gays” while he too makes Dharna do his bidding pointlessly walking laps around a fountain in some sort of macho display of endurance while insisting that he’s so anti-drug that even if he gets a stomach upset he just powers through it with raw masculine energy. He too is a self-interested hypocrite spouting religious nonsense while hanging out in “massage parlours”, dangling the idea of salvation but unprepared to grant it. Dharna wonders if it might have been someone from the area where he grew up who reported him but discovers that unlicensed midwife Melba (Janice De Belen) makes a point of not putting any names forward at all and is herself willing to risk breaking the law to help women in need who are denied medical treatment because of their poverty.

It’s impossible to avoid the implication that this is happening to Dharna in part because he’s poor and powerless in an authoritarian and hierarchal society but he’s eventually forced to consider that someone may have put his name in a drop box anonymously, that perhaps they gave a random name when someone asked for one to save their own, because they had something against him, or sought to profit in some way from his absence. Like the witch trials of old, the war against drugs is another tool that can be manipulated for personal gain and so inured to violence has the society become that many are prepared to use it. Dharna finds himself at the centre of a random conspiracy in which he has no other option than to accept his complicity or die, discovering that as the radio report that opened the film had suggested the same officials in charge of prosecuting the war on drugs are in fact secretly using it to secure their stranglehold over the local drugs trade. 

Dharna finds himself compromised at every turn, beginning by offering free haircuts to help his case to progressing to covering up state crime, literally, by repairing the faces of the dead and graduating to faking a seizure in an ambulance to bypass a checkpoint. At the hospital he is confronted by the face of an old lady filled with despair one hand holding that of a little girl and the other a pair of bloody sandals before she simply collapses. Dharna tries to wash the sandals clean but there’s only so much you can do when the stain runs so deep. The irony of his big night taking place on All Souls Day is not lost though there’s precious little time for honouring the dead when your survival can no longer be assured. 


Big Night screens at UltraStar Cinemas Mission Valley, San Diego April 23/27 as part of this year’s SDAFF Spring Showcase.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Fan Girl (Antoinette Jadaone, 2020)

Never meet your heroes is the conventional wisdom, and for good reason in that nobody’s perfect and when you place someone on a pedestal they can’t help but disappoint you when they step down. For the heroine of Antoinette Jadaone’s Fan Girl, however, the clash between her youthful escapist delusions and the ugly truth that lies behind them is more than just a cautionary tale about the commodification of the human image exposing the unpleasant duplicities of a fiercely patriarchal, misogynistic society that those escapist images both mask and reinforce. 

16-year-old Jane (Charlie Dizon) is completely obsessed with rom-com star Paulo Avelino (playing a heavily fictionalised version of himself), bunking off school to attend a publicity event at a local mall at which he and his co-star Bea Alonzo (also playing “herself”) with whom he is apparently in a real relationship are set to appear to promote their latest movie. In the ensuing crush, Jane manages to slip away from the crowd and stowaway on a pickup truck that improbably enough belongs to Paulo who will be driving himself away from the event. Excited in her illicit adventure, Jane snaps candid picks of her crush peeing on the roadside scandalised by the realisation that she’s glimpsed his intimate area, zooming in on her pic while messaging her friend to share the news that Paulo is “a biggie”. Soon after, however, she falls asleep and when she wakes up it’s already dark. The truck has arrived at a creepy gothic mansion out in the country. She thinks she sees Paulo beckon her inside and jumps the gate, only the figure she spots on the upstairs balcony doesn’t match the idea of the romantic prince in her mind nor is he very excited to see her. 

To begin with, perhaps our sympathies are all with Paulo unwittingly stalked by this obsessive teenage fan who’s already invaded his privacy and feels herself entitled to his attention solely because of her devotion towards him. Yet we also fear for her, in the beginning at least Paulo is careful to rebuff her youthful romantic feelings and shows no signs of taking advantage of a naive teenager in the way some other stars might. In this situation of mutual threat, we can’t be sure who is most in danger, the vulnerable star struck fan or famous actor pursued by crazed stalker. 

Nevertheless, Paulo is quickly stripped of his star appeal, his gentlemanliness undercut by his constant insistence that “this can’t get out” eventually knocking Jane’s phone out of her hand as she takes a selfie next to his sleeping face lest she post it online and cause a scandal. As soon as he climbs inside his pickup truck he begins to shed his star persona, wiping the makeup from his face complaining they’ve made him look “like a faggot”, pausing only when stopped by police who immediately let him off after getting him to sign one of the many posters he has on hand for their lovestruck teenage daughter at home. Sitting in the back Jane can perhaps hear his constant swearing, but it doesn’t seem to penetrate. When she calls out his name in the villa she finds him shirtless, slightly pudgy with a lewd tattoo of a cobra woman on his back, his long hair greasy as he snorts cocaine from his curled fist. 

Paulo appears to live in the mansion but its gates remain permanently locked as if he doesn’t carry the key while the place is almost devoid of furniture, creepy its dusty emptiness. Perhaps it in a sense reflects his sense of self, somewhat hollow and ill-defined. Unravelling throughout his night with Jane he hints at a sense of impotence and despair, that he’s a slave to his image and in a sense no longer exists. The image Jane has of “Paulo Avelino” is entirely created by the marketing department, as is his apparently fictitious relationship with Bea, while he inhabits this shabby castle like a moody vampire apparently in love with a local woman who bore his child but is married to someone else. His lover later complains he treats her “like a whore”, stopping by only when he feels lonely or unfulfilled but apparently unready or unwilling to take real responsibility. 

Nevertheless, the scales do not fall from Jane’s eyes for quite some time. We gradually realise that her warm romantic fantasies are a displacement activity masking her fear and her sorrow over all the men who have already betrayed her. We might ask if her mother isn’t wondering where she is, but she later calls only to complain about her abusive boyfriend who hasn’t returned home fearing he is with another woman. Jane recalls seeing her estranged father who abandoned her with his new family, perhaps reflecting on Paulo’s complicated familial situation while clinging fiercely to the image of “Paulo Avelino” from the movies, a sensitive, romantic man who’s not afraid to cry. But underneath it all the real Paulo is just as much a product of toxic masculinity as any other man, a closet misogynist who thinks all women are “whores” and reacts with violence when his authority is challenged.  

Jane keeps insisting that she isn’t a kid anymore, consciously acting older drinking and smoking to perform the role of a mature woman, but finally comes of age only when all her illusions are shattered realising that Paulo is just another violent, abusive, man child resentful of his own insecurities. Returning home she surveys her pinups of him with a sense of regret, now denied even this small refuge of fantasy from the realities of her existence. Yet now she truly is no longer a child, angry but also realising that she doesn’t have to simply accept it in the way her mother has done resolving to seize her own agency though it remains unclear what kind of consequences if any her act of resistance may eventually provoke. A dark exploration of the interplay between fan and idol, the duplicities of image, and the persistent harm of an authoritarian patriarchy as evoked by the ubiquitous Duterte posters, Antoinette Jadaone’s nuanced drama paints a bleak portrait of the contemporary society but ends perhaps on a brief note of hope if also of tragedy as Jane smokes her cigarettes, not a kid anymore. 


Fan Girl streams in the US until May 2 as part of San Diego Asian Film Festival’s Spring Showcase.

Original trailer (English subtitles)