Two Silly Comedies from SE Asia: My Stupid Boss (2016) and She’s Dating the Gangster (2014)

Earlier I covered Fan Girl, a recent Filipino film that’s on Netflix, a dark tale of dangerous desire if you will. However, these two films below are far more the usual range of regional cinema you’ll find (from the Philippines and Indonesia), both being fairly silly, fairly forgettable, ultimately mediocre but still quite fun comedies with some broad acting.


My Stupid Boss (2016)My Stupid Boss (2016) [Indonesia, certificate PG]

It’s nice to see that popular Indonesian cinema (although this particular film is set in Malaysia) has the same stupid comedies as are made in English, ones usually starring say Jennifer Aniston (and not just because this film’s title reminds me of Horrible Bosses). Well here we get Bunga Citra Lestari (popular enough in Indonesia to be known by the acronym BCL) as Diana, who has recently moved with her husband to Kuala Lumpur and takes on a temp job for her husband’s best friend, the title character (played by Reza Bahadian, who judging from photos on the internet is ordinarily far more attractive, and younger, than he appears here). I can only presume the entire film is based around getting to see BCL contorting her face to humorous effect at the enduring stupidity of her boss, which as a high concept almost works, and she certain is a very likeable lead. That said, “Bossman” is incredibly, monstrously stupid, even more so than The Office‘s David Brent or other similar characters, though the film takes a sentimental swerve towards the end to try and redeem him, meaning that it might be Diana’s husband (Alex Abbad) who is the worst character in this film. In any case, it never really goes much further than the précis above suggests, making it like an extended sitcom episode, but it passes pleasantly enough.

My Stupid Boss (2016)CREDITS
Director/Writer Upi Avianto; Cinematographer Muhammad Firdaus; Starring Reza Rahadian رضا رهادیان, Bunga Citra Lestari, Alex Abbad; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Tuesday 8 June 2021.


She’s Dating the Gangster (2014) [Philippines, certificate 12]

I see the word “cheesy” used in reviews of this quite a bit, and it’s an apt adjective. This is a very silly film, with a ridiculous plot that revolves around a mistaken identity, strung out into a love story, with some sentimentalised tragedy wrung out from terminal illnesses, plus plane-related subplots that don’t exactly make a great case for domestic Filipino air travel. At the heart of the film is the relationship between the two leads, seen in 90s flashback, a time of hairbands, grunge t-shirts and brightly-coloured clothing, in which Daniel Padilla is supposed to be playing the titular “gangster” Kenji, but perhaps that’s Filipino slang for a goofy long-haired dork because there’s very little of the gangster about him, and oddly he scrubs up into a contemporary teen heartthrob pretty well. Much better is Kathryn Bernardo as Athena, his (sort-of) love interest, who is watchably bubbly and likeable and does the apparently requisite tearful scenes of melodrama pretty well too, though there’s far too much of that in general. It’s interesting to track the influences in popular Philippine romantic comedy cinema, having the kind of wild take on genre that you’d expect in Bollywood, but with a treacly sentimentality that is more reminiscent of Japanese films, but perhaps they are entirely their own thing. Certainly I find it hard to really dislike, even if I never exactly got caught up in the emotion, but I have to admit I’m not the audience for this after all.

She's Dating the Gangster (2014)CREDITS
Director Cathy Garcia-Molina; Writers Carmi Raymundo and Charlene Grace Bernardo (based on the novel by Bianca Bernardino); Cinematographer Dan Villegas; Starring Daniel Padilla, Kathryn Bernardo, Richard Gomez, Dawn Zulueta, Sofia Andres; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Tuesday 8 June 2021.

Fan Girl (2020)

So, Netflix: we know it has a lot of content. It makes a lot of content too, but sometimes you have to really hunt down stuff, because it generally just shows you what most people like you already watch. However, there are vast tranches of strange corners of filmic production. In the UK there are loads of Scandinavian films from the silent era onwards, somewhat randomly. There is Polish and Turkish popular cinema, plenty from India, and then there are places like Indonesia and the Philippines. Every so often I watch a popular Filipino romcom and let’s just say they can be of variable quality, which is why this film by Antoinette Jadaone sticks out.


This film goes dark in ways I didn’t really expect from a Filipino movie. Its director, Antoinette Jadaone, has certainly made her share of the kind of fluffy upbeat brightly-coloured and sentimental romcoms that I’ve become used to seeing (though even among those, 2014’s That Thing Called Tadhana is, I think, one of the highlights and it’s also written and directed by Jadaone). And it’s in this candy-coloured popcorn romcom film where this one starts. It has its 16-year-old protagonist and title character Jane (Charlie Dizon) at a glossy promotional event for the latest blockbuster by Paulo Avelino, who’s playing a version of himself (I certainly hope it’s fictionalised, anyway). When she steals away in his truck, there ensues a day and evening in which her fantasising about him comes crashing to earth. It’s largely set in a dark, rather gothic home, with brooding shades of the horror film to it, as Paulo reveals himself to be a tattooed, drug-taking alcoholic with a secret child and a tormented relationship, inspiring Jane to reflect on her own difficult life and how their stories cross over. She still really wants to be with him, though, and that dangerous desire is shown to be both a positive force but also dangerous for her, and I think what’s interesting about the film is the way it negotiates all these levels of desire, and doesn’t simply craft a film that decries modern fandom or equally attempt to find something pure in it: it’s a complex relationship, dealing with the darker side of romcoms’ obsessive lover plotlines, and certainly indicates that Jadaone, amongst the popular cinema of the Philippines, is more interested in making complex films.

Fan Girl (2020)CREDITS
Director/Writer Antoinette Jadaone; Cinematographer Neil Daza; Starring Charlie Dizon, Paulo Avelino; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Tuesday 29 June 2021.

The Kingmaker (2019)

The latest documentary by American filmmaker and photographer Lauren Greenfield deals with the larger than life figure and real-life influence of Imelda Marcos, First Lady of the Philippines during her husband Ferdinand’s dictatorship. It’s the film around which I’ve been working my Philippines cinema-themed week, and I saw it yesterday, a day which saw a large UK election victory for a populist demagogue from the right-wing of the country, elected on the back of a decade of his party’s damaging desire to leave one of the biggest trading blocs in the world, thoroughgoing austerity policies, huge cuts to welfare and other sustained attacks on the most impoverished within society. So that’s fun.


Lauren Greenfield has made films about people with immense wealth before, and both those and her books tend to cover that uncomfortable collision of aspirational wealth and real lived experiences, about little corners of the human psyche (or rather bigger ones in some cases) that desire the glossy fashion spread lifestyle. Imelda Marcos largely fits neatly into that, but with a far bigger and more dangerous political footprint that continues to make itself felt. Ostensibly the title is about her relationship with her husband, the massively corrupt dictator of the Philippines for two decades from the mid-60s to the mid-80s (at which point he was ousted by a ‘People Power’ revolution via the wife of an assassinated opposition leader, Corazon Aquino), whose power she was said to manipulate for her own ends, most famously for the acquisition of art, designer items and of course shoes. But the film moves quickly on from these trappings to her real and lingering effect on Filipino politics, via her family’s dynasty and their support for current dictator-wannabe and populist strongman demagogue Rodrigo Duterte.

Stylistically it frames Marcos with the opulence of her living spaces, repeatedly showing her handing out money to her loyal supporters crowding around her car or in public appearances (the money often held and distributed by her staff at her direction). She shows off her artworks and photos of herself with world leaders (at one point, hilariously, but utterly unconcernedly, breaking some of these framed photos while reaching to show off one, I think with her and Nixon). She is also apparently blithely unaware of how her namedropping comes across, especially when she’s talking about the aforementioned world leaders or her art collection. She could be a figure of fun, but gradually the film becomes more and more serious about her impact, as it layers on the Marcos’s crimes and the real effects of the policies and division they have sowed within their nation, paving the way for her and her family’s chilling return to power.

The Kingmaker film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Lauren Greenfield; Cinematographers Lars Skree and Shana Hagan; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Friday 13 December 2019.

Women of the Weeping River (2016)

Even in my small themed week around Filipino cinema, the southern island of Mindanao have come up a few times. It’s the region where the majority of the nation’s Muslim inhabitants can be found, and it has also been the site of a number of separatist movements, as well as, in John Gianvito’s documentaries, a site of historical genocide against indigenous populations. That means there’s a lot of history and conflict that makes for a strong drama, which is perhaps why so many of the country’s hard-hitting dramatic films have been based around there.


A drama set in the southern islands of the Philippines, just off the coast of Mindanao, where there’s a greater Muslim population but also a lot of internecine conflict that has gone on for generations. Without glamorising or simplifying the sources of resentment, this film covers two families who have been taking lives back and forth. In terms of the dramatic construction, though, it’s not straightforward but almost sidles into the conflict through the eyes of Satra in particular (Laila Ulao, just one of many first-time and non-professional actors, and certainly the stand-out in this film). The filmmaker isn’t interested in delivering speeches or wordy context, so instead we slowly get a sense of the stakes, at what each person has lost and that gives a sense of weighty sadness that perhaps accounts for how quiet Satra so often can be. As you might expect for a film in such a remote island setting, there’s a real feeling for the scenery, the lush vegetation and especially the river, that seems to divide the two families at war; plenty of the images have a beautiful pictorial quality, although the underlying misery of the conflict is never far from the surface.

Women of the Weeping River film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Sheron Dayoc; Cinematographer Rommel Sales; Starring Laila Ulao; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 2 November 2019.

Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (Weighed But Found Wanting, 1974)

An early feature film from Lino Brocka, who would go on to direct some of the Philippines’ best-known films Manila in the Claws of Light (1975) and Insiang (1976). He grapples here with society’s hypocrisy and maltreatment of those who are the most vulnerable. If his compassionate conclusion is specifically rooted in Christianity, nevertheless it’s a feeling that speaks to many societies, and one can only hope it someday receives proper restoration (like those other films, which are on the Criterion Collection).


There’s something in this film that reminds me a little of classic melodramas (for example, from the golden age of Mexican cinema), possibly because of its characters, who conform to certain types found in these films. The style is also quite simple (not simplistic) yet expressive in the way it presents the moral quandaries for the central characters, who are the young man Junior (Christopher de Leon) and the town outcast Kuala (Lolita Rodriguez), who is treated abysmally by the people of the village for her perceived simplicity. Junior initially is part of mobs of braying fiends, pushing her and the town’s leper (Mario O’Hara), by virtue of necessity, into one another’s arms, but eventually Junior reassesses his life’s choices and finds sympathy for the outcasts. It’s no surprise that in such a Catholic country, and with the film set in a deeply Catholic village, that this choice should be framed so explicitly in terms of Christ, and the final scene makes this symbolism fairly clear. It’s a film with a great depth of religious feeling and the compassion rooted in that, while keen to expose the hypocrisies of those, and made at the time it was, it’s difficult too to avoid linking this to the Marcos regime. The DVD I saw had the best available print, but you get the real sense of the lack of funds in the Philippines for film restoration and preservation — the first few scenes are shockingly poorly preserved, though the bulk of the film looks fine — which is a real shame, given the quality of so many filmmakers in this country.

Weighed But Found Wanting film posterCREDITS
Director Lino Brocka; Writers Brocka and Mario O’Hara; Cinematographer Jose Batac; Starring Lolita Rodriguez, Christopher de Leon, Mario O’Hara, Eddie Garcia; Length 128 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 5 June 2019.

Nervous Translation (2017)

I’ve covered Filipino mainstream romcom films directed by women, and also a personal essay film, but this is a tender indie festival drama about a young girl growing up in the 1980s, an impressive film from a new director who has made a couple of period dramas so far this decade.


In many ways this is quite a wonderful film, in the way it focuses on a child’s point-of-view without being cute or sentimental, and sets it in a period (the 1980s) without overreliance on reducing that era to a series of easy cliches. Yael (Jana Cassandra Agoncillo) is a quiet, slightly lonely child who listens to tapes sent by her father from Riyadh, and there’s a growing sense throughout of why he’s there and what’s going on with the family, but it’s never fully developed because the point-of-view remains rooted in the young girl. This means that while it can be frustrating not always knowing quite what’s going on, there’s a really consistent and beautifully evocative sense of atmosphere, with a precise use of camera and a sure visual sense suffusing the whole piece.

Nervous Translation film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Shireen Seno; Cinematographers Albert Banzon, Jippy Pascua and Dennese Victoria; Length Jana Cassandra Agoncillo, Angge Santos, Sid Lucero; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Friday 31 May 2019.

War Is a Tender Thing (2013)

A Filipino film set in the southern, more contested, part of the country, around the second-largest island of Mindanao. This is a personal documentary that looks at the conflicts from one woman’s point of view, and that of her family, and deals with interfaith marriage.


A personal essay film about the filmmaker’s family in Mindanao (an area also known as the Southern Philippines), this uses family history as a way to represent and interrogate ideas about the past, not least a long-running conflict ostensibly between Christian and Islamic populations in the area. Mindanao isn’t much represented in mainstream cinema, so it’s good to see some attention paid to the area and its people and histories. Certainly, the filmmaker’s family are sceptical about this idea of religious conflict, given that many members of their family have intermarried, and that becomes a theme that moves through the film, of understanding political turbulence through personal connections, and the film eschews any editorial contextualising of the conflict, aside from occasional snippets of television news. Technically, there are some messy edges to the filmmaking (a lot of shaky handheld shots), but it captures a lot of beauty of the region, and there’s an abiding mystery at the film’s heart.

War Is a Tender Thing film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Adjani Guerrero Arumpac; Cinematographers Arumpac and Victor Delotavo Tagaro; Length 74 minutes.
Seen at Genesis, London, Monday 15 April 2019.

Two Filipino Romcoms Directed by Women: That Thing Called Tadhana (2014) and I See You (2017)

There actually seems to be a large number of Filipino films directed by women, especially along the more commercial, mainstream end of film production. A swathe of comedies and romcoms have filtered through, in particular, to Netflix and much of them have a light, fluffy tone and likeable lead actors (who may be the same ones as we see in the serious arthouse festival dramas, but playing much different characters). Some are fairly tedious in the way of such films, but there are plenty which reward viewing and provide a rather likeable distraction from some of the more serious artfulness we associate with the Philippines and its cinema.

Continue reading “Two Filipino Romcoms Directed by Women: That Thing Called Tadhana (2014) and I See You (2017)”

Bontoc Eulogy (1995)

Setting itself apart from other films about Filipino history is this striking hybrid documentary, or rather more of a pseudo-documentary that blends actuality with propaganda and staging to create a critique of historical representation on film. There are a huge number of ideas bubbling throughout this hour-long film.


A strange hour-long piece that plays out as an earnest personal essay film about a Filipino-American man’s search for his grandfather, taken from the mountain region tribe of the Bontoc in the Philippines to be a performer at the 1904 World’s Fair in St Louis. This man, ostensibly the filmmaker Marlon Fuentes (indeed, played and voiced by him), reflects on his children and their lost ancestor, while Fuentes the co-director marshals archival footage to illustrate this (personal) historical lacuna. And yet, from the outset, there are hints that something more is going on — for example, the use of clearly fictional material (such as contemporary American propaganda representations of the US-Philippine war of 1898) without context, or implying their status as actuality film, or modern interpolations of ethnographic displays, tribal dancing, or images of his children holding cameras or doing magic tricks, as if representations of the filmmaker’s own practice. So this pseudo-documentary in fact interrogates the uses and purposes of image-making to shape historical representation, so sadly lacking in the education system not just of the US but the Philippines too (as seen in John Gianvito’s documentaries). In other words, there’s a lot going on here that’s worth unpacking.

CREDITS
Directors Marlon Fuentes and Bridget Yearian; Writer Fuentes; Cinematographers Rubén Domingo, Fuentes, Tommy Hafalla, Chris Manley and Yearian; Starring Marlon Fuentes; Length 56 minutes.
Seen at Genesis, London, Tuesday 30 January 2018.

Independencia (aka Independence, 2009)

Following on from my post about John Gianvito’s documentary diptych about the Philippines, which touches on Filipino independence in the late-19th cenutry, another film set touching on the same historical events was made by a Filipino filmmaker in 2009. It has a distinctive style, different from that of his more famous compatriot Lav Diaz, but captures something about how the past intertwines with the present.


There’s a strange and haunting atmosphere imbued with the uncanny that haunts a lot of Guy Maddin’s similar pastiches on silent films, but with more poise and mystery. For a film so short it also nevertheless reminded me of Lav Diaz’s (much longer) film A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery (2016), in that both are set around the turn of the 20th century, at the time just after the Philippines gained its independence from Spain, and which spend a lot of time in lush jungle terrains, though Independencia brings up the American occupation that came soon after independence (and whose effects are arguably still felt, as John Gianvito covered in his documentary epic, mentioned above). What sets Martin’s film apart is the style, which mimics that of early cinema, shot of sets using the sometimes harsh and inconstant natural light of the sun, lending that uncanny quality I mentioned earlier, a sense of a film dealing with a distant past and yet one which nevertheless persists.

Independencia film posterCREDITS
Director Raya Martin; Writers Martin and Ramon Sarmiento; Cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie; Starring Tetchie Agbayani, Sid Lucero, Alessandra de Rossi; Length 77 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 November 2017.