Coping with grief, coming to terms
Mario A. Hernando (The Philippine Star) - June 2, 2011 - 12:00am

Film review: Third World Happy

It’s a role tailor-made for Sam Milby. Wesley Tecson is a quiet, brooding, regular guy who speaks Tagalog with an American accent, a homecoming artist from the United States. Wesley flew to the US on a scholarship grant after spending his early years in Sampaloc, Manila. Years of mingling with US natives appear to have obliterated his ease with the Tagalog language. He now sports a foreign twang. Sam’s Filipino handicap, if one may call it that, echoes Wesley’s, and as evident in his previous work, his soap operas, he’s a good, underrated actor and artist who could stretch his thespic range further in other realistic dramas like this one. By any means, he should not be confined to maudlin boob tube fare.

Sam benefits from a script, which for the most part, requires him to be low-key and taciturn even in an emotional scene — a reunion with an old flame. Then he pulls off effectively a climactic breakdown scene. Deservingly, Sam earned a best actor nomination from the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino at the recent Gawad Urian.

Wesley is part of the Filipino diaspora. His return to Motherland stirs in him mixed feelings of happy anticipation and deep loss. The movie shows locals teasingly and repetitively comparing him to real-life heartthrob Sam to show, in passing, celebrity-obsessed local folk. “You look like Sam Milby!” they kid him more than once. (The idea has been used as a joke in a 1956 Lucille Ball comedy Forever Darling, recently on Turner Classic Movies, in which the comic superstar meets an angel from heaven, played by James Mason, and she tells him that he looks like... James Mason.)

One difference between Sam and Wesley is that Wesley doesn’t stay here long enough to get spotted by talent scouts and join a popular reality TV show. But the short visit is enough for him to find closure (it’s a word that many locals in real life overuse).

When the movie opens, we see Wesley working at an art gallery in the Big Apple, obviously still a struggling artist. A phone call from Manila and an urgent voice asks him to come home, and in a snap he’s home, from First World cheer to Third World gloom. No, he does not go home to the squalor and slums we see in other indie films, this, happily, not being another poverty porn, and filth and misery not being the concerns of the story. Profound grief is, since someone in Wesley’s family has died.

An expectant moviegoer may observe that the movie is taking time to reveal who that departed person is. When Wes first sets foot on the funeral parlor, he does not proceed to the casket to view his loved one’s remains, which allows the actor to save his dramatic moment for a later time.

In any case, Wesley seems to have had a happy childhood among carefree, generally worry-free folk. The neighborhood he grew up in is relatively spic-n-span, could even be a candidate for a civic society’s cleanest barangay award, just the Manila other indie filmmakers turn their digital cameras away from.

One by one, Wes meets the people who mattered in his pre-US life: Aunt Beth (Melissa Mendez) and her husband (Archi Adamos), his best friend Lyndon (Archie Alemania) and the old gang, with whom he catches up and reminisces about the old days but not before he catches two of them engaging in a bit of gossip about him. Still, reunited and in celebration, the barkada has fun sharing beer and listening to a nostalgic pop tune, Long Hair by a ’90s band called Weed, a piece of music in a score that is kept appropriately to a necessary minimum.

Wesley is welcomed and is seen in conversations with his Kuya Danny, played by Richard Quan, in pristine white tee and later, long-sleeved shirt. The two souls’ reunion is casual, as they indulge in a light banter, refer to BMWs (babaeng mahilig sa wheels, a joke that belongs to a much earlier time, the early ’60s), do some fraternal bonding. Danny engages in philosophical musings about Luna’s Spoliarium and life being a blank canvas on which it is up to us to decide what picture to paint and which colors to use. In this case, it is the director talking. Danny’s advice is intended as much for the audience as for the younger brother.

In close-up, Danny is bathed in a warm, radiant glow, exuding a certain air of otherworldliness ­— wise, encouraging, understanding, forgiving, almost saintly. The scenes between the brothers work, as do the other scenes, thanks in large measure to the actors’ natural style and to Ogi Sugatan’s cinematography.

Wes sees the pretty and sentimental, long-suffering Aylynn, the girl he left behind, played by Jodi Santamaria. Many in the audience may find it incredulous that after a dozen years, Lynn hasn’t quite moved on and come to terms with having been jilted by a lover.

But Jodi’s heartfelt performance glosses over this shortcoming. Aylynn is really doing well and the actress who plays her convinces us that her harboring a still-aching grudge against a childhood boyfriend who suddenly left and then ended correspondences with her several years ago, is valid and plausible.

Throughout the movie, a juicy prospect is bandied about even as the movie early on dismisses that situation as a cliché — the love triangle. Wes has a girlfriend in New York, Stephanie, a pediatrician who may be having some serious personal issues with him, but otherwise their relationship looks solid.

So, moviegoers are made to guess, going by traditional movie-movie tradition, which course Sam will eventually take. Will he drift back to First World comfort in the US of A into the arms of his current girlfriend, or take the chance of being Third World happy with first love Aylynn?

The second option makes for another intriguing possibility. Lynn is a single mom with a caring, intelligent son who is 12 or 13 years old. In Wes’ first reunion with Lynn, she tells him about the boy and when she answers his question about the boy’s age, there is interminable silence. Finally in their next meeting, Wesley asks if the boy is his son, but the movie plays mum and refuses to degenerate into melodrama, or into cinematic cliche. And let it be said that the guy’s explanation for his abandoning her is lame.

Turns out that this meeting between two exes is a ruse, the filmmaker is pulling one over the audience and merely introducing the notion of a love triangle to keep viewers offguard, making them unawares of a totally different, unexpected twist. It is a grand, jaw-dropping, eerie and satisfying moment.

In between, the director makes sharp little glances at Wes’ encounters with other people — the very articulate if rather busybody funeral parlor manager and aspiring writer, a couple of goons ganging up on an old pal, a small boy who exhibits artistic potentials ó they all mislead or prepare us for that singular moment.

Third World Happy was made by first-time director and writer EJ Salcedo, who used the meager resources at his disposal to come up with a beautiful, surprising small film about coping with tragedy, and acceptance. A second feature from him shall be fervently awaited.

ARCHI ADAMOS AYLYNN FIRST WORLD JAMES MASON MOVIE SAM SAM MILBY THIRD WORLD THIRD WORLD HAPPY WESLEY
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