In the genre of Filipino romantic comedies, Joyce Bernal reigns supreme. In When the Moment Comes, Bernal brings out the best of her funny romantic leads - Robin Padilla and Sharon Cuneta. Critic Noel Vera waits to exhale.


It’s easy to see a trend among the new Filipino filmmakers. Often as not, they’re film-school brats raised on Tarantino and Scorsese, with cameras that tend to run around, hand-held, to the driving beat of a rock score. They like to show amoral punks with eccentric character traits and filthy vocabulary, apparently on the assumption that no one watching their film will have seen Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, or Pulp Fiction (And they would be right. Most of the time). Their films are full of flash and style with incoherent plots; you watch them, you don’t understand a thing, you are intermittently entertained, and you forget them the moment you leave the theater.

And then there’s Joyce Bernal. Like her artistic kin, Bernal is a lightweight; she refuses, apparently, to tackle serious subjects, having made the genre of the romantic comedy her particular domain. She is hardly an original (her Kailangan Ko’y Ikaw (You are All I Need) borrows its plot from Notting Hill (which in turn borrowed its plot from Roman Holiday) and her Pangako... Ikaw Lang (I Promise... There’s Only You) takes its cue from While You Were Sleeping). Her visual style is sophisticated but hardly groundbreaking - is, in fact, pretty much in the approved Viva Films style, glossy and well-lit.

But... and this is a crucial "but..." Bernal does know how to tell a story, having started out as an editor. She coaxes relaxed, confident performances from her entire cast (standouts include Ruffa Mae Quinto, Amy Austria, Marissa Delgado, Roldan Aquino, and some unknown actress playing the most horrifyingly tactless maid I’ve ever seen). And she gives the film the light, airy feel of a real comedy, a feel not as easily achieved in Philippine cinema as, say, heavy-duty melodrama or your usual shoot-em-up. Bernal is unique, in that she makes movies in what’s actually one of the most difficult of genres, the romantic comedy, and she has the box-office to prove she’s very good at it.

Bernal’s light comic touch is easily apparent in Pagdating ng Panahon (When The Moment Comes), yet another confection involving Manuel (Robin Padilla), son of a mostly male family that runs a coconut farm, and Lynette (Sharon Cuneta), daughter of a mostly female family that runs a coconut-pie bakeshop. Manuel and Lynette are obviously made for each other - she’s processing and distribution while he’s the supplier – but there is this supposed curse involved where at least two of Manuel’s family have died after marrying a member of Lynette’s family.

The story is amusing and well-written (by Mel Mendoza-Rosario), with a few (okay, one or two) twists and turns, but it’s all just an excuse for Bernal to put together a cast of interesting actors and basically have fun with them. Bernal has worked with other lead actors - Aga Muhlach, for example - and while the results are fairly good Muhlach isn’t quite the same; he doesn’t have Padilla’s intensity or volatility. Every time Bernal works with Padilla she seems to bring out something interesting in him - he’s his usual macho chauvinist persona, but the machismo is more entertaining than irritating, the kind of character flaw you need to make your characters comic.

In one scene, for example, he defends the honor of a gaggle of queens from some drunken boors. When one boor accidentally lands a blow, he declares: "I considered you fags, since you were beating up fags; but since one of you hit me, you’re men, and deserve to be beaten up like men," and then proceeds to knock the stuffing out of them.

It’s a funny little scene, even if - or especially because - it’s so politically incorrect, with gay men portrayed as being every bit as irrational and foolish as, say, teenaged schoolgirls (we’re seeing the world through Padilla’s eyes, of course, where anything in colorful clothes and a skirt is considered feminine). The scene also puts Padilla’s character in perspective: he’s a simple man possessed of a complicated code of honor; the comedy comes from his attempts to work out his code in difficult situations, with at times unexpected results.

Then there’s Sharon Cuneta as Lynette. I’ve never liked Cuneta; never liked her looks, never liked her singing, never liked her acting, and it’s a measure of Bernal’s achievement that in this movie she’s enchanting - more, that she’s enchanting despite being so overweight. Bernal and Mendoza-Del Rosario must have wondered what kind of romance can be had from a woman carrying what looks like 10 to 20 extra pounds about her waistline; their solution is remarkably simple - make the excess baggage part of the gag. The film pokes gentle fun at Cuneta’s overfull figure, and she is a wonderfully good sport about it; the additional padding is actually a badge of honor - it signifies her membership in the all-too-human race, adds to her charm, makes her more deserving of our sympathy, our love.

Cuneta has the fleshiness of Botticelli’s nudes; I actually found her less appealing when she stepped onstage recently, exposing her latest svelte figure. Hers is not the kind of beauty that belongs on the covers of Vogue (a magazine I like to flip through because it creates a pleasant, perfumed breeze). It is, however, the beauty of a woman with both feet planted firmly on the provincial soil, only a wayward eye cast (longingly, movingly, comically) at the distant stars.

Note: Businessworld, November 30, 2001. The article also appears in Noel Vera's Critic After Dark: A Review Of Philippine Cinema (BigO Books).
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January 9, 2007

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