You can bet on it

Ferdinand S. Topacio - The Philippine Star
You can bet on it
Sean de Guzman and AJ Raval are paired anew in Roman Perez Jr.'s latest film.
Photo courtesy of Viva

Movie review:Taya

MANILA, Philippines — In Roman Perez Jr.’s latest opus, we are introduced to an underground world of illicit betting used, not only for the illegal trade of goods like drugs and loose guns, but also of loose women. We are also introduced to the way by which young men and women get caught up in this world, with tragic consequences.

In this world, we meet Sixto (Sean de Guzman), an inept journalism student who has, year after year, failed to graduate college for want of an acceptable thesis. He lives with his uncle — an electronics repairman — in squalid surroundings and has to endure the sight of his aged uncle canoodling with his married lover. Instead of working on his studies, he spends his time having sexual fantasies of a woman he sees every day in school, whose name he does not know, but whom he calls “Winona” in his mind (Jela Cuenca).

With his thesis adviser (Mon Confiado) breathing down his neck, he chances upon Lepot (Pio Balbuena), a childhood friend, who seems to have made it big. Lepot lets him in on a secret: Online ending. There, one can bet on the last two digits of the scores of a basketball game, for prizes that include drugs, firearms and even women. It’s run like a company, Lepot explains, as he shows off the worldly goods he has acquired through the online game, with a hierarchy partaking of portions of the gambling take. Seeing an expensive camera among Lepot’s possessions, Sixto borrows it for his thesis (a documentary).

Perusing the choice of prizes, Sixto is surprised to see that one of them is the object of his desire: Winona. Placing a bet on Winona by using the money his mother had just sent him, he wins, to his great delight. Due to some glitch in the system, he bets on the wrong girl, and instead of Winona, he is sent to Nanette (AJ Raval). Initially disappointed, Sixto is eventually won over by Nanette’s spunk, charm and good looks, and they end up making love.

Thereafter, Sixto ends up pining for her and arranges for them to meet. After another sexual session, he realizes that he is in love with her, and offers to take her away from her job as an online prostitute. Nanette asks him, “May pera ka ba?” This depresses Sixto, since of course, he has none. Obsessed with saving Nanette, Sixto sells the camera he borrowed from Lepot and makes successive compulsive bets online, in the process winning a gun. He then decides to make his documentary an expose of the illegal online gaming scheme and sends his report to his thesis adviser.

In the meantime, tragedy strikes Lepot. He owes the gambling syndicate some money, and asks for the camera back to raise the funds to pay his debt. As Sixto no longer has it, Lepot is killed, and Sixto is hunted by the police for his possible involvement. He then elopes with Nanette to an idyllic hut in the province, but she soon tires of their impoverished lifestyle and leaves him. Losing his equanimity, Sixto returns to Manila to find her, notwithstanding that he is the subject of a manhunt. As he evades the law, the husband of his uncle’s lover finds out about the affair and kills his uncle. His thesis adviser plagiarizes his documentary and sells it to a television network; the syndicate assassinates him. In short, things spiral downward for Sixto from there.

The movie is loud and deliberately overly color-saturated, giving off a Neo Tokyo vibe that effectively conveys the chaos and surrealism of Sean’s world in the digital realm. With effective use of quick cuts, whip pans and garish lighting and jarring music, the movie’s atmosphere is spot on. The acting is also generally competent: Sean portrays the role of an obsessive-compulsive, sexually-preoccupied young man with skill, except for certain moments when his acting appears tentative. AJ has matured a lot since her first movie, playing her role as a farm-fresh country lass drawn into an inescapable slave contract as a prostitute with just the right parts of resignation and sympathy. The rest of the support do their jobs well, except for Angeli Khang (who seduces Sixto towards the movie’s end), whose raw, talentless acting seriously mars the film’s third act. The script is also tight and logical, except for the loose end that is the loose firearm that Sixto wins, which plot thread seems to have been abandoned in mid-air.

In sum, Taya is all about making bets, and the disasters that ensue when one loses. Sixto’s uncle takes a chance on having a married paramour, and loses his life. Lepot, too, when he borrows money from the mob, hoping to use it to make a killing on online betting, but is killed instead. Nanette gambles on a normal life in the country with Sixto, but ends up not liking the prize. The biggest loser is Sixto, who turns his back on a sure thing — his college education — by staking all on a game that he can never win.

As an erotic and powerful entertainment with an impactful ending that one will not forget, however, Taya is a sure bet.

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