The girl who beat Nora and Vilma

Don Jaucian - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - Angeli Bayani isn’t feeling well. On the day of this Supreme cover shoot, she braved the lunchtime traffic of Cubao, coming from an early-morning packup of a previous shoot. She apologizes for the delay, telling me about how she hasn’t been feeling well since this morning. Given the contentions that we uphold actresses these days, Angeli is someone who shouldn’t care if she’s late. Consider her stellar pedigree: She won Best Actress for Lav Diaz’s Melancholia in 2008, five years since she debuted as a GRO in Ang Huling Birhen sa Lupa; she’s worked with some of the most acclaimed directors of Philippine cinema; has been a regular face in the independent film festival circuit; and lauded by filmmakers such as Agnes Varda and Ang Lee (who called her our “National Treasure” — and no, not the Nicholas Cage kind). As icing on top of the cake, she recently beat Nora Aunor and Vilma Santos as Best Actress in this year’s Gawad Urian for her performance in Lav Diaz’s Norte: Hangganan ng Kasaysayan, which also won best picture. If she comes in three hours late (which she doesn’t), she shouldn’t care. She deserves the A-list treatment better than any of her contemporaries. She’s walked the Cannes Film Festival’s red carpet — twice — with both of her films bathed in the warm applause of the giants of World Cinema.

That was a year ago. This year, Norte has been enjoying something of a second wind. It began with a series of special screenings in several mall-chain cinemas — a feat to begin with since no money-grubbing capitalist would probably dare screen a four-hour film devoid of blockbuster explosions in any of their cinemas. Every screening has been sold out, every audience receptive of a dark film — although swathed in the light of an expansive blue sky — that plumbs into the evils that plague our nation. Norte is Angeli’s fourth film with Lav, an artist she reveres so highly for his vision; a director who knows that a film is a collaborative work and not an imposition of a creative genius.

On trust

“Lav is the kind of director who trusts you to do your job,” she shares. “Yung ibang directors kasi ‘Angeli, so this is the scene, so I really need you to ...’ (With Lav), walang ganon! Yung ibang directors, specific talaga kulang na lang pati hand gestures ipakita sa akin. Ang dating tuloy sa akin, wala silang tiwala. Eh si Lav, sobra yung respeto sa’yo bilang actor. Yung tiwala na ibibigay mo yung kailangan niya. Kaya ikaw, you [have to] step up.”

It’s this work that Angeli yearns for her filmography, a body of work that has seen the darkest depths of humanity, from an other woman desperately trying to take care of someone else’s family (Purok), a doting wife (The Guerilla Is a Poet), a determined activist consumed by her love of country (Ka Oryang), and a woman who ended up falling in love with the wrong man (Muli). These are films that have enabled Angeli to make her mark in local cinema; a gallery of heartaches, sacrifices, and ambitions done in such a remarkable and restrained way. In lesser hands, these roles would have been beaten down with hysterics and waterworks, the award-baiting kind that we’ve seen in countless films.

As Eliza in Norte, Angeli strikes the fine balance between the restrained and the evocative. She watches her husband bid their family farewell, snarled by the corruptive chaos that penetrates the most ordinary of lives. In this moment, her face a sea of emotions, her loving gaze hinting at the heart that breaks each time her husband takes a step away from her. But she dares not fall, she has to be strong and carry on, something that she does for the rest of the film, trudging the sleepy streets of their small town peddling vegetables. Diaz captures this in such a painstaking way that we become one with Eliza’s fate, one with her exhaustion and oppression.

Norte is a singular feat of filmmaking, a film that masterfully weaves a tale that is at once all too unbelievable and familiar. The nature of such a nihilistic film demands so much from its actors, its scope and breadth encompassing human emotions that don’t rely on cheap sentimentality. There is no swell of dramatic music, no glamorous close-ups or expositions of frothy dialogue. In the midst of this tempest, Angeli rises up, but she knows that she’s not here for a show-stopping scene, she’s here because Lav trusts her enough to carry his vision.

Global audience

Norte is currently on a limited run in the US, where it has been praised by Slant magazine, Village Voice, and The New York Times (“[Norte] is the work of a director as fascinated by decency as by ugliness, and able to present the chaos of life in a series of pictures that are at once luminously clear and endlessly mysterious,” wrote critic A.O. Scott).

Hopefully, people will remember Angeli for her searing performance in Norte, and not just as the actress who beat two iconic Filipino actresses. She’s been busy working since. We’ll be seeing her next in two Cinemalaya films this year, Bwaya, where she plays the lead role, and Ronda. She’s also involved in an Australian production, Foreigners, and the GMA production, Niño. As for her mark in the industry, Angeli is humbled by the reception that she has been given, but she knows that her journey as an actress has only just begun.

“If people recognize you, it means magaling ka, you did well. At the same time, gusto ko rin yung ‘Sino na nga ba yung girl sa ganyan?’ Kasi ibig sabihin kahit papano nag-iba ka. Ako pa naman, hindi ako katulad ng ibang actors na nagiiba ng itsura. Mostly, ito na yun. Kung ano man ang itsura ko for the day, ito na yun. Pero if I managed to do something different, na hindi mo ako naalala dito, eh di may mas matinding transformation akong nagawa. For me, madali lang magpalit ng hairstyle, mag makeup. But if I do something else na matatandaan nila, grateful ako doon,” she says.

* * *

Tweet the author @donutjaucian





Photo by Mau Mauricio

Produced by David Milan

Makeup by Anthea Bueno of MAC Cosmetics

Shot on location at EDSA BDG

Special thanks to Sarah Canlas and David Ong

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