Chito Rono is an excellent technical director but when he is actually given a good script to bite into, a miracle happens. Scriptwriter Armando Lao, one of Philippine's unsung scenarists, gives Rono just that, and The Life Of Rosa, a noir crime thriller anout a con artist, just takes off. Critic Noel Vera loves defying gravity.


Chito Rono’s La Vida Rosa (The Life Of Rosa) is a noir crime thriller about a con artist named Rosa (Rosanna Roces) and her lock-picking boyfriend Dado (Diether Ocampo). Rosa and Dado keep half a dozen schemes juggling in the air, anything from stolen cars to blackmail to stealing gifts from a wedding reception; their main source of income, however, are the smuggling and housebreaking operations led by Tsong, a crime boss, and his right-hand man Lupo (Pen Medina).

Dado and Rosa have a complex, love-hate relationship with Tsong: they depend on him for jobs and protection, yet at the same time feel an irresistible need to "sideline" - to commit freelance crimes - behind his back. A busy life, complicated even further by Enteng, Rosa’s son (Jiro Manio), an incurable gambler and thief, and Rosa’s blind mother (Liza Lorena), who likes to sit before church entrances and beg for alms. For his part Dado worries about Jhing, his former girlfriend, now married to another man, and Iris, Jhing’s eldest daughter and possibly Dado’s as well.

You think: it’s too complicated, yet another case of a Filipino film throwing everything (including the kitchen sink) into the brew. But Rono miraculously keeps it all airborne, juggling eccentric characters and fast-breaking situations with masterly ease.

More, something emerges - a distinct point of view, a small-scale vision of Manila’s urban streetlife that manages to be both cynical and compassionate at the same time. Its notion of cops and criminals as interchangeable (with cops collaborating if not actually leading crime rings), is as damning a view of the Philippine National Police (or PNP) as that of the recent Red Diaries (to which the PNP had made furious objections).

Perhaps even more damning, because Rosa avoids breaking down into mere cartoon melodrama; the film’s milieu is quietly, consistently realistic, made so by patient accumulation of detail - detail you feel the filmmakers have gathered through long observation and careful research.

I’ve always acknowledged Chito Rono to be an excellent technical director - stylish without being really imaginative, distinctive without being truly unique. His recent output is nothing to be proud of, from unabashed hackwork like Istokwa (Runaway) and Dahas (Force) to softcore porn disguised as pretentious art in Curacha, to the misguided feminism found in Bata, Bata, Paano Ka Ginawa? (Lea’s Story), to the equally misguided misogyny driving his Laro sa Baga (Playing With Fire).

In fact, the only film of his that I felt stood above the rest was Eskapo (Escape), a taut, vigorously told prison drama set during the Martial Law - and that possibly because the film had been written by Pete Lacaba, one of the better, more politically aware scriptwriters currently working in the Philippines.

The script for La Vida Rosa was written by Armando Lao, whose previous works include Jeffrey Jeturian’s Pila Balde (Fetch A Pail Of Water), Tuhog (Larger Than Life) and William Pascual’s near-great psychosexual chamber piece, Takaw Tukso (Temptation).

Lao is possibly the most underrated scriptwriter in the local film industry today; he enjoyed a modest surge of renewed prominence only as recently as 1998, through his collaborations with filmmaker Jeffrey Jeturian. I take special note of this because Rosa is the first Rono film I’ve really liked since Eskapo, six years ago - not to mention the first I’ve liked from Star Cinema since they produced Eskapo.

Rono gives Rosa its visual style and helped create the remarkable ensemble acting, but the characters and their fleshed-out relationships, the story and aforementioned overall vision are uniquely Lao’s. He deserves credit for being, at the very least, a full and equal collaborator in one of the better Filipino films to come out this year.

Note: Cinemaya Magazine, Issue # 54-55, Winter-Spring 2002. The above also appears in Noel Vera's Critic After Dark: A Review Of Philippine Cinema (BigO Books).
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April 17, 2007

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