Remaking a camp classic
Mario A. Hernando (The Philippine Star) - July 8, 2011 - 12:00am

Film review: Temptation Island

MANILA, Philippines - Temptation Island is an adoring tribute to the late Joey Gosiengfiao, the country’s foremost exponent of camp, via a faithful remake of his 1980 movie. The late filmmaker made so-called campy movies in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, the most striking of which was La Paloma. But Temptation Island seems to have made such a strong impact that it was even adapted for theater.

But first, some passing notes on camp. It is a style in pop culture to be enjoyed by people with a certain sensibility. In campy entertainment, reality is heightened or raised to a level of unreality. It revels in artifice and takes itself too seriously. It is not intended as a comedy even as some moments are clearly meant to be funny. Humor is a dominant quality but people may find it funny for different reasons.

Obviously the artists (in the case of movies — the director and actors) are dead-serious about their work but often the work or details may be exaggerated to an incredible degree, to a height of “corniness.” The sophisticates may roar in delight at the deadpan humor and the sometimes unintended joke, sight or gag. Others will embrace it wholeheartedly the way they enjoy the extreme emotions and plot twists in soap operas.

In La Paloma, Gosiengfiao presents the spectacle of two quarreling viragos, both decked in high fashion — even at home. (Another campy director is Gosiengfiao’s buddy Elwood Perez but Elwood has surpassed camp and come up with serious classics like Isang Gabi, Tatlong Babae, Bilangin ang Bituin sa Langit and Silip.) In the early ‘70s, Joey directed the longest-running local theatrical production of the hit Broadway play The Boys in the Band which was turned into a movie by William Friedkin. The boys referred to in the title are a barkada of gay men in New York having a party and bitching about one another. It is less of camp than of black comedy.

The women in Temptation Island are like the queens in the Band and the warring vixens in La Paloma — mean, cantankerous, flamboyant, theatrical and predatory. They carry dagger looks, are always ready to claw at each other, and eat men alive — well, here, both figuratively and literally. A woman throwing a cuss word “Bitch!” will hear the retort “Double-bitch!” Very gay.

When Temptation Island starts, you hear young people talk about “wheels,” the old slang for cars and automobiles. Leaflets drop from the sky to recruit participants to a beauty contest. A few flyers fall on one señorita sunbathing by a pool and attended to by a Girl Friday. Even during the pre-internet era, the method of reaching out to potential interested girls is, to say the least, questionable. But that is part of the director’s campy design.

Characters are introduced. Four girls compete with other hopefuls and win minor titles. Emceeing the affair are Bibeth Orteza and Ed Villapol (now it’s Tim Yap and Tessa Prieto-Valdes). The contest goes on with the four finalists aboard a cruise ship. Then the vessel accidentally catches fire and nine persons are shipwrecked on a desert island: All four girls, the maid, three hunks and the gay chairman of the jury.

The experience is similar to but is also different from the other — more famous — tales of its kind: Robinson Crusoe (filmed by Buñuel with Dan O’Herlihy in an Oscar-nominated performance), The Blue Lagoon (Brooke Shields), Cast Away (Tom Hanks) and Wertmuller’s Swept Away (remade with Madonna). What an intimidating company! Gosiengfiao’s edge over these old foreign movies is that he always kept his tongue in cheek, which somehow makes him critic-proof.

On this hot and arid island, the girls are in tattered clothes, with no undies. How else to deal with temptation on the desert island but to yield to it. The gals and guys make do, make out, they despair, manipulate or try to destroy one another, and learn a thing or two about survival. The script and screenplay of the original Temptation Island is credited to Toto Belano who should still get the lion’s share of writing credit for the new version. If changes have been made, they are miniscule.

The gals in the original movie are Dina Bonnevie and a trio of real-life beauty queens Jennifer Cortez, Azenith Briones and Bambi Arambulo. Deborah Sun plays Jennifer’s maid. The studs are Ricky Belmonte, Alfie Anido and Domingo Sabado, with Jonas Sebastian, playing the only gay person in the bunch. Belmonte, Anido and Sebastian have since gone to the Great Beyond.

For the 2011 movie, director Chris Martinez and the producers have assembled leading Kapuso stars Marian Rivera, Heart Evangelista, Lovi Poe, Solenn Heussaff and Rufa Mae Quinto for the top roles while John Lapus is the hapless gay diva. Aljur Abrenica, Mikael Daez and Tom Rodriguez are the new boy toys while Azenith and Deborah of yore are back in mother roles. One supporting player in Gosiengfiao’s cast is not in the new movie but she is the most active of them in this millennium, at 85-or-something years old — Anita Linda.

Martinez’s girls have new names: Virginia P (Heart), Serafina F (Lovi), Pura K (Solenn) and Christina G (Marian), title names given to previous Regal babies. Nowadays, it sounds odd that the characters would call the girls with the first letters of their surnames. Very ‘80s and very “Regal.”

Martinez takes the cast and crew back to where Gosiengfiao took them 30 or 31 years ago — the sand dunes of Ilocos Norte, careful not to deviate from the master blueprint. The story is almost intact. In most instances, he repeats shots from the original, with camera placements exactly the same, as in the early part when mother and daughter get their faces messed up with the icing of a multi-tiered cake.

If Martinez is not able to do a consistent, meticulous scene-by-scene remake, such as done by Gus Van Sant in the 1998 version of Hitchcock’s Psycho, one assumes that he never planned it that way or the exigencies of production have precluded it.

Otherwise, it is the same. In both versions, the gay character manages to keep his wardrobe clean, white and spic-and-span all the time in spite of all the hardships, sweaty days and long walks and sand everywhere. The rules of camp, however, disallow anyone to question the absurdity of his getup or the lack of logic in plot. When the bored girls want to entertain themselves by dancing, the music comes from a small sound device that has materialized from nowhere. When pangs of hunger intensify, the girls hallucinate, see giant replicas of food for oversized Gulliver and dance like sacrificial maidens possessed.

Everywhere, heat is severe and the brightness of the sun is almost blinding. You can feel it in your skin. Cinematography captures this effectively. Camera, however, keeps a comfortable distance during certain dramatic moments. When something unexpected happens to the gay character and the macho cook gets to work, the camera moves back.

Next shot, the survivors are forced to eat something that’s unpalatable, they squirm and grimace. One may note that the actors don’t look hungry enough. Still, this is the funniest moment in the movie. To make the experience more bearable for them, the entire cast bursts into a song albeit wearily: in the old movie, they sing Somewhere, the anthem of hope and faith from West Side Story and now it’s the rock ballad Habang May Buhay, either which makes a hysterically hilarious comment on the action.

When emotions run high, the actors play their roles to the hilt — sassy, full of artifice, grandiloquent. Let it be said though that if one were to name the best actress among the girls — or the entire cast, it will have to be Ms. Heussaff, who should continue to be visible in more serious movies and TV dramas. This screen tyro will tear co-stars to pieces.

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