MANILA, Philippines - There is a highly-imaginative mind behind the makers of Dance of the Steel Bars now fighting for survival in the ongoing box-office race dominated by Man of Steel in the cinemas of Metro Manila.
The initial come-on is the dancing inmates of the Cebu Rehabilitation Center which hit YouTube some years back and had since then gone viral with over 50 million views.
The YouTube sensation must have fascinated director-journalist Cesar Apolinario that he transformed his inputs on the Cebu jail into a gripping story of injustice, jail mismanagement and induced riots in the country’s detention cells.
The setting is real and so are the characters. But what made the film all the more engrossing is the passion for dance of Mando (Dingdong Dantes) who accidentally kills his gay dancing teacher in one intense dance lesson. He genuinely loves dance but at that phase of his young life, giving in to the advances of the dance guru is out of the question.
And so he lands in jail in the company of Frank Parish (Patrick Bergin) and Gudo (Mon Confiado).
In this prison cell for three, their life stories emerge.
Parish landed in jail trying to help a stabbing victim. Mando inherits the love for dance of his mother but he can’t give his all for his art for a sensitive reason: His macho father equates dancing with homosexuality. In jail, he meets another gay dancer Allona (Joey Paras) who shares his interest in dance.
In one encounter, Mando tells Allona that dance requires focus, dedication and true grit. Allona takes this to heart and was able to make not just passable dancers — but a thoroughly involved dancing ensemble.
Truth to tell, Dance of Steel Bars has more to offer cineastes than the over-rated and over-advertised Man of Steel.
The film re-acquaints us with the disquieting mismanagement in the country’s penitentiaries and you conclude that corruption has spread its tentacles in the very institution aimed to reform criminals. You also see a common story of innocent people languishing in jail only because they can’t afford to hire lawyers.
But out of this accepted state of Philippine detention cells comes a refreshing story of a young man who genuinely loves dance and can’t publicly express it because of a homophobic father.
The surprise dance number of Dantes and Paras has sensitive resonances of the tango scene in Scent of a Woman. The solo dance scene of Dantes is reminiscent of Billy Elliot which is about an Irish boy who wanted to dance rather than play.
As a whole, you get a view of an excellent collaboration between director Apolinario and the scriptwriters (Cris Lim and Michael Villar) and the cinematographers (Emman Pascual and Rain Samson). On top of that, the music of Edward White is never obtrusive.
One must say that the No. 1 attraction of the film is the superb acting ensemble.
This is not Bergin’s best exposure but still he remains a towering, if, admirable figure as he interacts with Dantes and Confiado. There is unfathomable evil in the portrayal of Gabe Mercado (as Deputy Warden Diaz) and Thou Reyes (as Dong) opposite the inherently good Gudo (Confiado) and Allona (Paras).
Thus far, this is the best of Dingdong as an actor. His dance sequences are credible, his intensity comes from something deep in his being. Towards the end of the film when he still tries to avoid dancing in public on account of his father’s opposition to his art, he lets go of his reservations and joins the glorious dancing finale of the film.
As for director Apolinario, he has rare insight and a wide imagination to make another prison story look fresh and highly revealing.
As it is, Man of Steel is pure Hollywood crap and Dance of Steel Bars shines minus special effects.
This is another indie filmmaking at its best.