Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay (Antoinette Jadaone, 2011) November 19, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema One, Indie Sine, Noypi.
Written and directed by Antoinette Jadaone
Cast: Lilia Cuntapay, Geraldine Villamil, Joel Sarracho, Bella Mercado
Several months ago, at an awards ceremony that ended up highlighting not only the winners but also the people who selected them, the Urian decided to give the best actress prize to Maja Salvador for Thelma. It was an upsetting gesture, a charade that did nothing to distinguish the Urian, probably the most respected group of film critics in the country, from other award-giving bodies that recognize piles of rubbish every year. To start with, its standards seem questionable. If its idea of superlative acting is one that revels in monotony and triteness, then there is something laughable about the credence that its members think they have. Salvador’s attack on drama offers nothing new: it’s a heavy-handed performance that pokes too much and expects to be noticed for it. Choosing her over Cherry Pie Picache’s immensely nuanced work in Isda or Fides Cuyugan Asensio’s moving turn in Niño, both of whom portray mothers with remarkable nuance and intensity, indicates a lapse in judgment that’s too glaring to be defended by subjectivity. What makes this decision even more disappointing is that the plate offered to the Urian does not lack good options; on the contrary, the serving of nominees in the category is quite generous. The jury members, whatever terrible reasons they may have, reckon that the most delicious food in the dish is the parsley, and consequently Salvador’s name is chewed on by the press like a tasteless garnish, making the other winners pale in comparison. Sad to say, this confirms the Urian’s need to butter up the mainstream to sustain its personal network, a compromise that exposes the weakness of the culture developed in this type of environment, a situation that’s not unique in Philippine cinema but whose repercussions are exclusive to it.
To each his own, of course, but a wiser decision would have been to bestow the prize to Lilia Cuntapay. She is the subject of Antoinette Jadaone’s debut film entitled Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay, a mockumentary in which she plays herself and a fictional version of herself. It’s an unlikely concept brought to life—a renowned movie extra finally given the opportunity to top the bill and carry a full-length feature—but its more striking feat is that Cuntapay, at a ripe age of 76, is able to complete the film and leave an impression of delight in doing it. Obviously she has waited long enough for this. She is jumpy and self-conscious about the attention given to her, enjoying the limelight and the certainty of not being edited out of the movie, reined in by her director whenever she becomes too eager to please. Her face lights up and frowns exaggeratedly when she finds herself cornered by a question, a manner that reflects her actual personality and adds to the charm of the film. She delivers a flawed yet unforgettable performance, a distinction that owes more to her presence than to the people showering her with compliments, her time onscreen conveying a sense of timelessness, a feeling that this recognition won’t ever happen again. On numerous occasions, Cuntapay acts as though she were always being reminded that the movie, after many years of fruitless search, had finally found her, and this consciousness allows her to create a portrait of herself that looks exactly like her but in many ways also resembles a lot of people, bit players who only exist in a two-hour movie for five seconds, actors whose mere idea of contentment is getting paid and being attributed correctly in the closing credits. Surely, the esteemed members of the Urian have taken these things into consideration, but how could they have weighed Cuntapay and still found her wanting?
Well, there are no easy answers, but interestingly the Urian is not alone. In Six Degrees of Separation, Cuntapay is nominated for best supporting actress and fails to win the prize. A huge portion of the movie is spent on following her as she drafts a speech, including a couple of dream sequences (shot in film) where she is dressed in elegant gowns, holding a trophy and addressing an unseen crowd. For someone of her rank, understandably, this high praise means elation and anxiety, and Jadaone is quick to establish that foothold. After introducing the audience to several celebrities and ordinary people who seem clueless about Cuntapay, the director visits her house in Manila and talks to her neighbors, who, as the story progresses, turn out to be as fascinating as Cuntapay herself, made evident in that hilarious series of scenes as they wait for her interview on television. Except for her assistant Myra, these supporting characters make up the main weakness of the movie—their lines are too sensible, their curiosity doesn’t seem natural, and their day-to-day activities in relation to Cuntapay are rather indefinite—but they are also crucial in providing the main character an emotionally credible foundation. Without them the narrative will hardly move forward, but their actions affect the believability of the mockumentary as a storytelling device. The film loses its natural feel as it carries on, its plot points becoming more scripted than improvised, but Jadaone compensates for it by executing a fine drama of Cuntapay’s life. When she arrives at a film location hours before the call time and asks permission to use the toilet, only to be denied because it can only be used by the main actors, one feels that this is a situation that has happened to her many times in the past. There is that vicarious clutch of ache and sadness, like a paper cut that stings for the first time, but then the next scene shows Cuntapay peeing in the grass, hidden behind Myra’s garment, and the sight couldn’t be anything but sidesplitting. Just when the film is about to get too indulgent in its sentiments, Jadaone will find a way to come up with random bursts of humor, scenes that make Cuntapay’s situation painfully absurd and amusing at the same time.
“She is one filmmaker whose work I seriously believe would make for good commercial cinema. Here’s to hoping she gets her break soon and is given the freedom she deserves to make it in the manner she wants,” said Alexis Tioseco about Jadaone in 2006. The late critic had openly expressed his fondness for her student work, seeing in “’Plano,” “Saling Pusa,” and “Ang Pinakamagandang Pelikula” a certain potential that could go beyond the confines of the short film medium, a young and passionate mind whose sensibilities leaned on the mainstream but away from the stale formulas of most studio releases. Six Degrees of Separation happens to be the break that Tioseco was waiting for, and the rejection from Cinemalaya turned out to be a blessing since it’s likely that Laurice Guillen and Robbie Tan would insist on changing some aspects of the script that were too atypical. One could only speculate on the extent of their intervention: Would Cuntapay have bigger and more outrageous scenes to showcase her acting? Would she be given less screen time considering Guillen didn’t find her face too endearing? Would her poverty and lack of husband and children be emphasized, as well as being a lonely old maid about to bite the dust? The creative freedom given by Cinema One Originals has allowed Jadaone to make a film that teems with personality, letting her linger in a kind of adolescence that never loses sight and perspective of how this industry works and how cruel it can be even in the littlest of circumstances. The title may not match the zest of its material, but it totally makes sense in the context of Cuntapay’s fate, both as a seasoned actor and an aged woman whom the viewers are familiar with but have watched from an indeterminable distance, the separation leaping from professional to personal. In hindsight, Tioseco’s greatest legacy is the impression he left on the people he believed in, and Jadaone is one of them. She has turned that encouragement into a challenge not just to please him but also to continue what he so passionately did in his short life, helping out people in the industry who deserve more but receive less, proving that he was right in having faith in her.
In one of his interviews in the film, Peque Gallaga drives across a meaningful point. He mentions that getting an award is important for an artist because it raises her talent fee and improves her work condition. In an ideal world this should be true, but an ideal world is also full of disappointments. Although Cuntapay would have preferred to have these belated perquisites in the twilight of her career, she is motivated by another reason, and that is to show everyone that she is worthy of such praise, that the events in her life have naturally led to this, to a genuine appreciation of her craft by her peers. This explains her earnestness to come up with a good speech. She looks forward to having a perfect moment in case luck stays on her side, but unfortunately it decides to perch on someone else’s. Jadaone’s camera doesn’t show how the wrinkles on Cuntapay’s face have suddenly gone deeper or how her heart has skipped more than a beat. Instead it shows her hand crumpling the speech she has painstakingly prepared for days, acknowledging defeat. Despite not having seen the film she’s in, the audience members feel that Cuntapay deserves it, a sentiment that Jadaone has cleverly conditioned them to feel, so when Rio Locsin asks her to come up onstage and share the prize with her, the gesture draws attention to the softness of the narrative, succumbing to the necessity of a cathartic finish. In real life, as what happened in the Urian this year, Cuntapay is not expected to receive an award, and even if she does she is likely to share it with someone (with Maricar Reyes, for instance, at the Cinema One Originals ceremony). By way of an uncanny prescience, Jadaone has seen this coming and figured a much finer tribute: presenting this film to the public and making sure that it will be remembered for its star more than anyone or anything else. She succeeds and Cuntapay takes a bow, overwhelmed and lost in thought.