In Paradise Express, director Tikoy Aguiluz shows how poverty in the Philippines means gambling everything you have - money, sex and your life. In spite of the realism (or maybe because of it), the film was given an X rating by the Filipino censors. Noel Vera reviews.
 
THE ASIAN VALUES DVD REVIEW

Tikoy Aguiluz - 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 Express).

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.

Biyaheng Langit 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).

Gambling - 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.

Instead, they 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 train.


 

Taking risks 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.

Ventura, in 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.

Aguiluz always 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.

The actors 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.

Coming off 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.

Note: Cinemaya 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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