Chai Fonacier proves Filipinos are ‘not token representation’ in Nocebo

Nathalie M. Tomada - The Philippine Star
Chai Fonacier proves Filipinos are ânot token representationâ in Nocebo
Chai plays a Filipino nanny who introduces traditional folk healing to her Irish employer.

MANILA, Philippines — Never in Chai Fonacier’s wildest dreams would she be cast as the “bida-kontrabida” in the Irish-Filipino horror-thriller Nocebo, sharing major screen time with Hollywood stars Eva Green (Casino Royale, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children) and Mark Strong (Kingsman movies).

From Irish Film and Television Awards-winning filmmaker Lorcan Finnegan (Vivarium), Nocebo centers on Christine, a fashion designer (Eva) who suffers from an illness that perplexes her doctors and frustrates her husband, Felix (Mark). Help arrives in the form of Diana, a Filipino?nanny (Chai) who uses traditional folk healing to reveal a horrifying truth about Christine’s baffling sickness. Nocebo, distributed in the Philippines by TBA Studios, is showing in cinemas nationwide.

“My expectation when I read the script, I thought I was a supporting character,” the Cebuano actress-singer, who currently stars in GMA’s Maria Clara at Ibarra, admitted to The STAR in an interview.

It turned out to be a role that, like Eva’s, did the “heavy lifting” in the film, as Mark Strong would later praise Chai when she told the actor she was a fan of his work. The New York Times would highlight the actress’ “knack for coiled tension” while RogerEbert.com said that her “measured performance is well-realized and deeply felt.”

Cebuano actress-singer Chai Fonacier in one of the scenes she shares with Eva Green in the psychological horror-thriller Nocebo, now showing in cinemas nationwide.

One of the feedback or reactions that delighted Chai came from Cebu, where she previously lived, studied and worked in the local media for a time, before relocating to Manila to pursue acting.

An amused Chai shared, “Nakakatawa nga may isang eksena duon na, of course in the life of a faith healer, may mga icons ka d’yan, mga santo, everything and nakita yung Sto. Niño (considered as Cebu’s official patron). For a film that’s horror, siempre takot-takot dapat, but when they saw the Sto. Niño, buong sinehan daw sabi nila, ‘Pit Senyor!,” referring to the Cebuano traditional greeting or supplication for the Sto. Niño.

“But beyond the laughter and the applause, what I appreciated about it is ‘pag nakikita mo yung sarili mo sa screen, it’s a reaffirmation that we exist, we are here, we are worth celebrating, we are worth being talked about and that we are not some token representation.”

It was between February and May 2021 when cameras rolled for Nocebo in both Ireland and the Philippines. Since this was at the height of the pandemic’s second wave, most countries were enforcing hard lockdowns that restricted movement both locally and internationally.

According to the production notes, “Travel proved particularly challenging when it came to bringing in our lead Filipino actress Chai Fonacier. A lengthy visa process and limited international flights resulted in Chai finishing her quarantine on the first day of the shoot! She was welcomed with open arms and finally (filming) was underway.”

The moment she arrived in Ireland, Chai said her only mindset was to give justice to the character. She wasn’t even thinking her inclusion in the film also marked a milestone in the representation of Filipino talent – a regional artist at that — abroad.

“Because my feeling was, if I allowed myself to be overwhelmed in terms of the enormity of it all, I wouldn’t have done a good job. Kung inisip ko yung, ‘Oh my god, ka-eksena ko si ganito, ka-eksena ko si ganyan,’ I wouldn’t have done a good job,” she said.

“Thank God for my theater training. Thank God for the training Angeli Bayani gave me because I had Meisner training with her,” Chai recalled, referring to the acting technique that “teaches actors to respond to stimuli and trust their instincts.”

She thanked her late Cebu theater mentor, Alex Uypuanco, for teaching her that “when you’re given a role, focus on your role and give justice to your role,” she said.

“Whenever I’m given a role kasi, diretso ako sa tao informing that character. When I attack a character, parang hindi lang ako nagsusuot ng costume, nagbubuo ako ng isang tao, saan siya galing, what is that person’s socioeconomic background, bakit ganito siya magsalita kasi ganito yung background niya, everything.

“And I wasn’t even thinking of Filipino representation at that time when I was doing the film. The story was more important. Maganda ang kwento, kelangan suportahan ang kwento so kelangan kong humabol. That became my anchor, so to speak.”

That’s why she appreciates comments now, saying, “Hindi naman na-upstage yung mga co-actors pero lumaban. Because when I went in there, ang feeling ko talaga is, these are seasoned actors, kelangan kung humabol, kaya nag-catch up talaga ako. I have to put my best foot forward no matter how many ‘feet’ there are.”

Eva Green and Mark Strong play a married couple, whose relationship is tested by the wife’s unexplainable illness.

Respect for Filipino culture

Chai recalled that with COVID travel restrictions causing filming delays and even canceling Eva’s availability to shoot in the country, the production decided to replicate some Manila locations in Ireland.

“So amazing what the production team did, I swear! The production team in Ireland and in the Philippines, together, what they did was they set up an entire area in Ireland na magmukha siyang Pilipinas sa interior. Mukha siyang mainit pero ang lamig-lamig dun. Then there were Filipino background actors who were based in the UK and Ireland. But the exterior was shot in Manila,” Chai said.

Filming in the Philippines pushed through after Filipino co-producers Epicmedia and financiers Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP), through its International Co-Production Fund (ICOF), organized a special exemption with the government for a limited number of crew to enter the country.

They shot in six different locations over the course of six days, including a warehouse in Manila as the exterior of the factory, remote caves and a rural basketball court.

“The gap between shooting in Ireland and shooting in the Philippines was two months but the continuity, you wouldn’t notice (the time difference). Maganda yung pagkatuhog, ang ganda ng ginawa ng production team as in!” said Chai.

She also commended the Irish production team for showing utmost respect for Filipino culture, including the small props acquired from the Philippines and flown to Ireland. Since these were actual items used by folk healers, the team consulted a Filipino “spiritualist” for the film. He had specific instructions on how these props should be handled and the Irish production strictly followed them.

Chai recalled that there was one prop that was forbidden to pass through or pass by a cemetery, and the Irish team checked and cleared the routes before traveling. “There were notes there, ‘Do not say this out loud,’ (referring to the) chants… and everytime we handled the props, I had to be there. There was an instruction na ako dapat magligpit.

“And me as an actor, I’m scared to handle those things. I handled (them) with fear. I believe in those things because lapitin ako. So when we were doing the scene (that involved the props) they told me, ‘Chai, you have to act like you’re chanting.’ Sabi ko ano ang chant na gagawin ko, ayoko magbukas ng mga portal na wala naman akong balak puntahan.

“So, alam niyo anong chant ginawa ko, ‘lorem ipsum dolor sit amet’ (laughs). That’s a placeholder for layout, right? I researched it and it’s gibberish. Kasi takot ako. Hanggang ngayon takot ako sa mga props na yun.”

Chai gets instructions from Irish Film and Television Awards-winning filmmaker Lorcan Finnegan on set.
Photos courtesy of TBA Studios

Wonderful co-stars

Meanwhile, Chai was profusely grateful for her co-stars. She was especially touched by Eva’s show of support even when Chai filmed scenes without her.

“Eva Green is a wonderful co-actor because even if it was not her shot and she wasn’t included in the shot, she would be right there behind the camera and sasamahan niya ako (she would accompany me).”

She further recalled, “The first time I came here to Manila, I used to do that to my co-actors, but pinagtatawanan ako, sabi nila napaka-OA naman ng batang ito, very eager to please, but that was my training in theater, ‘wag mang-iwan ng co-actor. Tapos biglang itong isang Eva Green and isang Mark Strong, never nang-iwan sa akin. Even when it wasn’t their scene, they never left me behind. So, I thought, from now on, I will not be ashamed to do that (to co-actors) because it’s being done by Mark Strong and Eva Green.”

The whole Nocebo experience was a validation that there’s “no dearth of talent and skill in the country.”

Besides Chai, the Filipino co-producers EpicMedia as well as background Filipino actors based abroad, Filipino composer Jose Buencamino was tapped to provide score for the film. He used traditional indigenous instruments mixed with contemporary string and wind instruments.

What Chai learned and noticed though is how the system treats its workers and lamented the lack of government support here.  “Ang pinakanapansin ko ay yung kakulangan ng government support sa film and TV,” she said, recalling how apologetic their Ireland producer, Brunella Cocchiglia, who is the wife of Lorcan, when Chai’s filming day went overtime.

“She said, ‘Chai, we’re so sorry we went overtime.’ Sabi ko, ‘No, it’s fine, you can have me however long you need me, but wait you’re saying sorry for overtime. So how long have we gone over time?’ Sabi niya, ‘We’ve gone overtime for 15 minutes.’ Sabi ko, ‘(expletive) 15 minutes? Have you tried shooting in the Philippines?’

“Alam mo yung ganun? Ganun ka-laki respeto niya sa oras ng mga tao. They also have unions there, so ‘pag nag-overtime mga tao, bayad ka. Here in the Philippines, there’s no overtime pay ang ating cameraman, utility natin, PA natin, which is unfair… Dun ang laki ng respect for the film worker… That’s the most stark lesson I learned (from working outside) — respect your workers.”

Nocebo was the opening film at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival and had limited runs at Sitges Film Festival, Cork International Film Festival, Singapore International Film Festival, and QCinema International Film Festival. For screening schedules and other details, visit TBA Studios’ social media pages.


  • Latest
  • Trending
Are you sure you want to log out?

Philstar.com is one of the most vibrant, opinionated, discerning communities of readers on cyberspace. With your meaningful insights, help shape the stories that can shape the country. Sign up now!

or sign in with