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Green card blues

Sid Lucero as Toto with Bembol Roco as his father in a dream sequence from the comedy-drama directed by John Paul Su

Film review: Toto

MANILA, Philippines – From Dec. 17 to 24, if you can pry yourself away from the Star Wars buzz, do yourself a favor and seek out the Metro Manila Film Fest (MMFF) New Wave entry, Toto.

Directed by young director John Paul Su, who also co-wrote the screenplay, and starring Sid Lucero in the title role, the film is a wonderfully engaging comedy/drama that looks at the American Dream today, and brilliantly entertains and makes us laugh, while providing pithy social commentary about the prevailing desire to seek a better life in the proverbial Land of Milk and Honey — the USA.

A hotel employee who idolizes Tom Cruise, Antonio/Toto (Sid) dreams of following his father (Bembol Roco) to migrate to the USA, and from there, send money to his cancer-stricken deserted mother in Tacloban (Bibeth Orteza). His relationship with a fellow hotel staff employee (Mara Lopez) and his bonding with cousin Yam (the impressive Thou Reyes) take up much of the plot of this film, as Toto explores all possibilities in pursuing his dream. This includes “creating” his family that is high-heeled and moneyed as he applies for a visa, and consorting with hotel guests (Liza Diño and Blake Boyd) who may hold the key to his successfully finding passage to America. The unquenchable dream, the desperation that ensues, the measures he will take, all provide the grist of the film — grist that is touched by comedy while giving us serious food for thought on why this dream persists.

The editing, the set-ups, the cinematography all point to a young, yet very sure hand. I loved how whenever the scene leads to high drama or becomes ripe with teleserye elements, director John Paul will suddenly subvert the atmosphere with comedy or a visual joke. His handling of the cast is topnotch, starting with keeping Sid in character as a promdi Leyte boy, down to Bibeth speaking in Waray. And constant in the film’s development is the sobering reminder that while we can lionize and call OFWs contemporary heroes, the glaring, sad truth is that we are still a nation where millions have to look abroad to find career fulfillment, rather than finding opportunity here at home.

What struck me about John Paul’s handling of his material and ensemble is the obvious love and respect he has for all the characters. Even when they are acting deceitful or conniving, there is underlying compassion for his characters and their motivation.

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John Paul is a product of NYU Tisch Asia, and had Carlitos Siguion-Reyna as one of his professors. Papag is his much-lauded short film, and the promise shown there finds concrete realization in this first full-length feature.

Toto was deservedly given an A rating by the Cinema Evaluation Board. For those who complain about the formulaic Filipino films we are bombarded with, this film is one example of why engrossing storytelling in Filipino cinema is not a lost cause.

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