Is Chito Rono's Curacha a misunderstood film or is it just misdirected? It has everything going for it - stars, subject matter and Ricky Lee, one of Filipino cinema's best writers. So why does Curacha feel like tired flesh? Noel Vera tries to revive himself from comatose.


THE ASIAN VALUES DVD REVIEW

Curacha, the title of which was taken from a Filipino dance, is the latest from Chito Rono and Ricky Lee. Lee is one of the best writers we’ve got, he wrote some of Ishmael Bernal’s best works, Himala (Miracle) and Relasyon (Relation); Rono is the rare Filipino filmmaker who, with films like Private Show and Eskapo (Escape), displays a genuine style.

Curacha is neither Lee nor Rono at their best and I don’t think any amount of reediting is going to save it. The film is full of disjointed sequences, heavy symbolism and endless philosophical discussions. And even after a second viewing I still can’t understand what the 1986 EDSA revolution against then President Ferdinand Marcos, and the various coups against his successor, Corazon Aquino, have to do with the story - does Curacha (Rosanna Roces) and her adventures stand for "Inang Bayan" (Mother Country)? Does her first name - Corazon - link her with President Aquino, possibly the most naïve woman in Philippine politics?

There are questionable details: a beauty contest for children is conducted in the middle of a revolution; nightclub shows and whorehouses continue to operate despite the violence outside; and all hospitals are drastically underlit (the better, I presume, to achieve a film noir atmosphere). The various coup d’etats are staged with varying degrees of inauthenticity; even the dirt smeared on the faces of the homeless people look like applied makeup.

Granted a lot of this can be forgiven by saying this is a stylized film, a nonrealistic, nonlinear film. But a film stylized or not should have a central performance that will hold the pieces together, that will give the monstrous hybrid (cobbled from films by Federico Fellini, Ishmael Bernal, Luis Bunuel) life. Rosanna Roces, a veteran of numerous cheap sex flicks, might have provided the bitter wit and energy; but as directed by Rono, she turns in a limp-wristed performance.

When I run into people asking if the
movie is any good, they brush aside
my comments that it’s slow and
doesn’t really go anywhere and ask:
"Does Roces really show her boobs?"

Lee writes funny dialogue. When the film begins, Roces wakes up and says: "My breasts are like Ermita; my vagina, Quezon Avenue." His concept of Curacha is of someone who’s seen everything and done everything - who’s bored to death with life. Unfortunately, Roces is too convincing: she talks in a flat monotone and rarely cracks her face more than a millimeter throughout.

She has brought Lee’s concept to its logical conclusion: if she’s seen and done everything, why go on with life? (Why, if you carry this one step further, bother finishing the movie?) Curacha is too exhausted, too passive, too dull a character to carry what feels like a two-hour-plus film.

Roces’s performance suffers even more when she is put side-by-side with the real thing, talentwise - as she pops pills into her mouth, Myrna (Jacklyn Jose) appears. It isn’t clear whether Jose’s character is real or a figment of Curacha’s drugged imagination (if Curacha saves Myrna by putting her in a boat, is she just saving some figment of her imagination?), but let’s set that flaw aside (we only have so much space).

Jacklyn Jose’s character is markedly similar to Roces’s - the same suicidal tendencies, the same need for escape through drugs (Roces at one point admits it was Jose who introduced her to pill-popping), the same cynical view of life. But Jose pulls it off - what is dull and contrived when Roces plays it feels real in Jose’s hands. (Jose, it goes without saying, is a terrific actress; she was good in Rono’s earlier Private Show and in Lino Brocka’s Macho Dancer.)

Rosanna Roces, a veteran of numerous
cheap sex flicks, might have provided
the bitter wit and energy; but as
directed by Chito Rono, she turns
in a limp-wristed performance.

Roces follows directions literally and, as a result, literally saps herself of energy. Jose realizes, through sheer imagination, the crucial difference - that a character with a death wish isn’t necessarily lifeless - she is passionately, wholeheartedly in love with death. This passion informs her entire performance; it gives her a special glow that outshines everyone around her, including the star.

But Lee and Rono shouldn’t be concerned with any of this; Curacha is shaping up to be an enormous hit. When I run into people asking if the movie is any good, they brush aside my comments that it’s slow and doesn’t really go anywhere and ask: "Does Roces really show her boobs?" "Yes," I say, facing the boob before me, "one on each side."

Lee and Rono should, however, expect a less forgiving attitude from people who want some drama, some reasonable semblance of a story and/or characters, some pathetic excuse to sit down and watch the movie. The film’s final scene takes a page out of Ishmael Bernal’s great Manila By Night and closes with a sunrise on Luneta Park. However, it tries to do one better than Bernal. A sampaguita vendor tries to sell Curacha some flowers; she gives the girl a thick wad of hundred-peso bills and asks: "How old do you think I am?"

"Twenty," the girl replies.

"You’re good at counting," she tells the girl, and swallows a fatal dose of narcotics. The people about the park (Curacha included) come together to stand before the flagpole and sing the national anthem. When they finish, she collapses and dies; they ignore her corpse (!) and walk away, leaving the park attendants behind, appropriately, to sweep away the trash.

Note: Businessworld, May 29, 1998. The article also appears in Noel Vera's Critic After Dark: A Review Of Philippine Cinema (BigO Books).
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