THE lead star may not be as visible as she was during her heyday in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, but the irony isn’t lost even among today’s generation of young moviegoers when director Jeffrey Jeturian cast movie queen-turned-Batangas Gov. Vilma Santos to play seasoned bit player Loida Malabanan in “Ekstra,” the actress’ first foray into the wide and wonderful world of indie films.
Having been a bida (lead star) all her life, from her first starring role as a child actress in “Trudis Liit” in the early ’60s, the Star for All Seasons never experienced being an almost invisible, inconsequential and exploited bit player in an industry that made her who she is today.
Jeturian’s decision to cast Vilma in his socio-realist dramedy that gives audiences a rare glimpse behind what really goes on during a typical shooting day on the set of a fictional top-rated soap opera is indeed an inspired move. The film wouldn’t have been as effective had he cast a lesser star. What made it all the more fresh and riveting to watch is the fact that it’s told from a bit player’s point of view.
Film’s heart and soul
As the heart and soul of the film, Vilma more than gives justice to the once-in-a-lifetime role with a quiet and nuanced performance that’s engaging as well as heartbreaking.
You need not be a Vilmanian like me to see how different and effective Vilma is even during scenes without dialog. You’d be transfixed, especially during the last ten minutes of the film when Loida’s dream of finally graduating from bit player to character actress is almost within her reach. Almost.
Jeturian’s decision to keep the key scene quiet, almost numbing is also a stroke of genius. I’m sure every one of us, for whatever reason, has had our embarrassing moments. In the immediate aftermath of such humiliation, you suddenly become deaf to your surroundings the way Loida must have felt like as all eyes were trained on her.
But not every one has had the misfortune like Loida of being embarrassed by another person or situation to the point that you’re stripped off your dignity and humanity. And the worst part is you can’t fight back and defend yourself from such personal and below the belt attacks because you’re just an expendable bit player. Ekstra ka lang!
“Not even your entire person is enough to pay for the cost of this production,” said the soap opera’s director, played by actor-director-designer Marlon Rivera, in Filipino. Rivera also made waves two years ago when he did groundbreaking work as director of the indie hit “Babae sa Septic Tank.”
Mix of emotions
And you can’t help but feel sorry for Loida during the film’s ending. While watching a scene from the soap opera they shot the day before, her face lights up to reveal a mix of pride, disappointment, sense of loss and resignation all at the same time for a part that’s supposed to be hers.
While her friends, who didn’t see the real on-set drama unfold the day before, keep congratulating Loida as the camera quickly pans on her and a group of bit players at a party scene, she merely tears up and smiles. You’d have to be made of stone (or one of Vilma’s political nemeses in Batangas) not to feel sorry for her character.
And Vilma’s boldness goes beyond her choice of role. As an aging bit player, she gamely agrees to deglamorize herself by allowing Jeturian to shoot her in a number of unflattering angles. Owing to the documentary feel of the film, I believe there’s a legitimate reason why the director did this.
If Vilma were vain, she would have insisted that she be shot and lit differently. In fact, like her on-screen rival Nora Aunor, she could have had a facelift first before doing a film as big and as important as this one. But there she is in “Ekstra,” pudgy, wrinkled and with loose facial muscles and all, gifting us with another gem of a performance.
Well, well, well
As for the film’s host of cameo performances, it’s delicious to see Cherie Gil playing herself in a supposed villain role that’s vintage Zeny Zabala: “Well, well, well, look who’s here.” The scene crackles with pure and classic camp.
At the same time, the film also takes potshots at the system, particularly the lucrative TV industry that churns out rehashed and mindless teleseryes (soap operas) at the expense of logic, and where shameless product placements have become as normal and as indispensable to the production as boom mikes and klieg lights.
Again, Marlon Rivera, playing the role of the director, articulates this point (I’m quoting from memory and translating the line in English): “How can you expect us to do good work when we’re always short on time, and product placements and pakilig (formulaic) moments are squeezed in regularly into the story?”
Rivera’s character could very well have been speaking about the entire media industry—including newspapers and magazines—where product placements, sponsored events and supplements/advertorials masquerading as articles, and written by some of the industry’s most respected and seasoned journalists, are seen with routine regularity in certain sections. Oh, well.
First time for me, too
On a personal note, I’m ashamed to admit that it was my first time to watch a Cinemalaya entry, which draws to a close tomorrow, Aug. 4. I’ve been able to catch a couple of Filipino indie films before, but I caught them either during their commercial run or, in the case of “Babae sa Septic Tank,” on DVD.
“Ekstra” proved to be a good choice, as my friends, mostly diehard Noranians—would you believe—braved a gloomy Thursday afternoon to catch it at the Cultural Center of the Philippines in Manila.
I would have wanted to watch at least one more entry, but the lines leading to CCP’s two box offices were quite long. Having secured our tickets in advance courtesy of my friend Ivy, we never had to line up to get sure seats to watch “Ekstra.”
Nevertheless, I’m heartened to see that Philippine cinema, at least, the kind of cinema I once patronized and had faith in, is still very much alive and well.
I’m not really sure how the system works since I don’t cover entertainment, but it’s safe to assume that everyone—especially the films’ lead stars—have had to agree to a pay cut to enable the entries’ directors and producers to realize their visions. And what fresh visions they are!
(Catch the other entries today at the CCP and at all Ayala cinemas.)