Abandoned by Cuntapay
ZOETROPE - Juaniyo Arcellana () - January 9, 2012 - 12:00am

There was a song playing, as if from some disjointed sphere or dream, and it said a new year was about to come, or had already arrived. Another metro film fest has come and gone, filling its old role of blinding the public with so many stars, but one of the better films I saw last December was no big studio production, rather a CinemaOne original by a young director who bears watching in the coming Year of the Water Dragon, Antoinette Jadaone’s Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay.

It’s a rare product in these parts, the mockumentary, where the subject — in this case the horror movie bit player Ms. Lilia Cuntapay — is the center of both tribute and ridicule, in other words, a documentary with a bit of fiction thrown in to make it part feature, and so a hybrid that has as spiritual cousin the likes of, say, Borges’ “A Universal History of Infamy.” Because not only is Six Degrees a mock documentary, it also qualifies as meta cinema.

But before anyone gets carried away, it is best to be advised that subject Cuntapay is very real, as real as the screams in the first editions of the horror franchise Shake Rattle & Roll.

For that is possibly where the moviegoing generation first saw her, the Peque Gallaga-Lore Reyes directed SRR numbers in the ’80s to the ’90s, where she appeared as a witch or mangkukulam, or aswang, bruha, manananggal, whatever you call that creature of midnight that preys on your most vulnerable side, that which never used to believe in such phantasms or deliriums. But now the viewer has no choice but to come face to face with the other, truth disjointed or regurgitated into black gobs of… never mind.

“If a child were asked to draw a witch, that drawing would look like Lilia Cuntapay, even if the child never in fact saw her.” That’s a paraphrase of what direk Lore says in the mockumentary, to underscore the subject’s archetypal horror demeanor, though in the film itself Ms. Cuntapay comes across as very likeable and Six Degrees is, make no mistake, actually very funny. A comedy from the dark side, in which the viewer ends up… abandoned by Cuntapay!

Again it is best not to be carried away, and concentrate instead on the interviews of different show biz personalities who at one time or another have worked with Ms. Lilia, such that the grand old dame of Philippine horror is likened to Hollywood’s Kevin Bacon, who just about everyone has worked with on that side of the globe. What do you know, Bacon and Cuntapay worked together in Brokedown Palace of 19forgotten, that movie where the lead actress Claire Daines made some unsavory comments about the noble and ever-loyal city that almost elicited a diplomatic protest and boycott of Daines’ films.

Aside from Gallaga and Reyes, Kris Aquino and Dingdong Dantes are also interviewed and asked if they knew Ms. Lilia. The responses are at first amusing, as if they could hardly recall who she was, until the director refreshes their memory that yes, she’s the one they worked with, most recently in the A-graded Segunda Mano that had the old woman as a vagabond rummaging the garbage bin for the cursed designer bag, only to be devoured by it.

Segunda Mano is just one of two films where Ms. Cuntapay appears in a cameo in the film fest, the other being Enteng ng Ina Mo where she is part of the chorus as the equally ubiquitous April Boy breaks into song, “Di ko katang tanggapin, na mawawala ka sa akin,” the crone mimicking the crooner with forearms held up in an “X” sign. What a riot.

Well, it would certainly be overstatement to say that such cameos changed the complexion of the film concerned, but it can’t be denied that these added to what they call “viewing pleasure” of the audience, that in these days of unnatural calamities there are still simple joys and horrors to partake of.

She was, of course, aside from the early SRR where she was the dreaded yaya of Kris’s baby, hanging onto the roof of a car and screaming like the furies, also in Mario O’Hara’s Ang Babae sa Breakwater, in which Ms. Cuntapay is a boulevard habitué a bit touched in the head who goes topless.

Lahat na nga direk ginawa ko na, di pa rin ako sumikat,” she confides, imparting morsels of wisdom gained after decades in the industry. And in the context of the long hours of waiting while on the job or for the next call slip, she says that life is not for the impatient. But what if you can’t wait? “Di magpakamatay ka na lang,” she deadpans.

To Jadaone’s credit, the young director never takes herself too seriously, but invests her subject with warmth and sensitivity, making the viewer aware that in such a seemingly fickle industry, there’s never a lack of small, marginal players (read: extras) who are dedicated to the craft. Another bit player draws inspiration from Cuntapay, saying that while before he was a plain passerby, he next became a passerby with lines and is now a regular civil wedding judge in movies.

The tableau in the fantasy sequence where Ms. Cuntapay delivers her acceptance speech upon supposedly winning a best supporting actress award is like a set for an installation piece, with a statue of the Virgin Mary off to one side. It suggests that the old woman is a sort of our lady of horror abandoned.

Jadaone, only 27, was a student of cinematographer Nap Jamir at the UP film school. It shows in her great sense of camera placement. More from her, then, in 2012 and beyond, like the bard Dylan she knows that there’s little else to do but inspire people.

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