One of Philippines' great female filmmakers, Laurice Guillen, shows the consummate professionalism that she can summon at will in American Adobo, a slightly routine sex comedy. Guillen can whip up the right ingredients but critic Noel Vera, wishes that the movie would just stew a little longer.


Mention Laurice Guillen’s American Adobo and the first question that pops into mind is: how does it compare to other films about Filipino Americans... particularly Lav Diaz’s Batang West Side (West Side Avenue)?

Let me answer straight off: no contest. American Adobo is nothing like the open, aching wound that is Batang West Side. It is not as over-reachingly ambitious, or as cutting-edge; it has none of West Side’s considerable flaws, and none of its emotional power. Aside from the topic of the Filipino-American community, which few Filipino filmmakers have really dealt with before (though Fil-Am filmmakers have dealt with little else), American Adobo is a totally conventional, totally commercial, totally disposable feature film that can be forgotten without regret the moment you leave the theater. The stink of greatness, in other words, does not taint its glossy sheen.

That said, there is a lot of charm to the movie, a sexy, spicy, piquantly funny concoction that follows the thread of four main characters: Tere (Cherry Pie Picache), who can cook and clean and make the perfect housewife (except no man seems interested); Marissa (Dina Bonnevie), who’s beautiful and vain and in love with a faithless young man (Randy Becker); Mike (Christopher de Leon), who’s stuck in a loveless marriage; Gerry (Ricky Davao), whose mother back in the Philippines (Gloria Romero) is desperately trying to find him a wife; and Raul (Paulo Montalban) who plays a Filipino Casanova to an endless string of trophy girlfriends.

Vincent Nebrida’s script doesn’t break new ground, but it does play the sex comedy game with some skill, the fairly witty lines delivered fairly well. He creates strictly by-the-dots characters (the single man whose mother is trying to marry him off; the earth mother who nurtures a gaggle of friends), but gives them enough details - coherently put together - so that they’re actually playable. He puts in enough incidents and jokes so that the audience’s appetite is constantly stimulated (the swimming-pool party is a minor gem of a comic setpiece). Given this kind of script and given a reliable director like Laurice Guillen, it’s hard to think how the film could fail. It doesn’t - Nebrida isn’t into breaking open the Filipino psyche for us to examine (unlike, say, Lav Diaz) but he is concerned with giving us a good time, the same time he slips in the occasional (and somewhat stale) nugget of wisdom (Bonnevie’s character rightly recognizes them as "fortune cookies").


There are flaws and virtues, and it’s mainly in the acting. Christopher de Leon’s Mike is a drag on the film as a whole - there was a point some time back when de Leon made me sit up and watch as he gave an extraordinary performance in Joel Lamangan’s not-as-extraordinary Bulaklak ng Maynila (Flower Of Manila); here he almost manages to put me back to sleep. Cherry Pie Picache’s Tere is the emotional heart of the film and, for the most part, she’s sweet and moving, but there’s a point, about three-fourths of the way through, that her aching loneliness becomes (slightly, ever so slightly) an aching bore. Guillen keeps it all moving, however, and we’re past the rough spots before they start feeling really rough; the film is as well-edited and paced as a Joyce Bernal romantic comedy.

Paolo Montalban’s Raul is a shallow creation - I know, he’s meant to be shallow - though Guillen gives him one nice little moment, when everyone is drinking to everyone else’s health and he’s in one corner, feeling alone. Dina Bonnevie acts the vain beauty perfectly; her fits of anger when she spots infidelity seesaw intriguingly between being genuine woman’s anger and being spoiled-child tantrums (too bad she’s somewhat redeemed - and somewhat less interesting - in the end).

Ricky Davao gives what I feel is the best performance - his Gerry is a tightly wound spring, almost painfully sensitive to the sensibilities of his doting mother (Gloria Romero, in a tiny but lovely role); his moment of emotional revelation when he finally confronts his mother feels real, not performed. And he follows this with a gem of a scene with Mike that has to be seen to be believed, or at least appreciated.

The American actors interact surprisingly well with the Filipinos - you don’t get the sense, as you do even with Lino Brocka’s films, that they’re stranded in one corner, practically talking to themselves. Randy Becker’s Sam makes for a wonderfully amoral boy-toy, as eager to look sideways at a passing beauty as he is declaring undying love to Marissa (you can believe the two are a match: they’re both childish and self-centered, and both lost without each other). Traci Ann Wolfe as one of Raul’s girlfriends is a game actress perfectly willing to embarrass herself for a comic scene, yet at the same time able to keep the humor light and natural. Wayne Maugan’s Chris is quiet but intense, and his few scenes with Davao are among the most moving in the film.

It’s a trifle of a film, though a well made one, and where’s the crime in that? I do have one complaint though: Laurice Guillen is one of our finest women filmmakers - one of our finest filmmakers, period. After 16 years of silence, she came out with Tanging Yaman (roughly translated: Our Only Treasure) and while the film as a whole wasn’t all that well-written, Guillen did manage to create scenes of surpassing loveliness. American Adobo is a better-written, better-directed work overall (though it doesn’t have moments as inspired)... which shows she’s grown, she’s improved as a director.

When is she going to start doing films as good as the ones she did before her premature retirement - dangerous, groundbreaking films like Salome and Init sa Magdamag (Midnight Passion), films that showed the darker, more sexual side of women? When is Guillen going to stop being a popular, perfectly good commercial director and start becoming a filmmaker - an artist - again? I pause for a reply.

Note: Businessworld, January 18, 2002. The above also appears in Noel Vera's Critic After Dark: A Review Of Philippine Cinema (BigO Books).
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October 16, 2007

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