Of Lilia Cuntapay and other unsung heroes

Francis Joseph A. Cruz (The Philippine Star) - August 27, 2016 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - Lola Isang, my family’s loyal nanny and the person responsible for making me and my siblings feel like princes and princesses growing up, would always wear her hair with a cleanly tied bun at the top that would hold her long silver hair for the day’s work. Since she was living with us and we’d always wake up in the wee hours of the morning to get to school on time, we’d always see her without the bun, with her graying hair freely flowing down her slender back, revealing a face that had been wrinkled by decades of undying service to our family. It was always dark when we’d see her like that. Dawn hadn’t arrived, so she’d prepare our baon under the faint yellow light of our kitchen, looking like a ghostly creature methodically moving around sparse light and shadows. If you didn’t know Lola Isang, her daily morning ritual would have struck you as something resembling a scene out of a horror movie. To me, however, it was routine, a signal of the start of a day that would shape our future, a memory from a distant past that reassured me that my current place in life was a product of love from a woman who did more than just her job.

Looking back, Lola Isang’s look before dawn reminded me and my siblings of Lilia Cuntapay, the beloved actress whose turn as the malevolent spirit who is bent on stealing Kris Aquino’s baby in the Yaya episode of Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes’ Shake, Rattle and Roll III (1991) turned her into one of Philippine pop culture’s most memorable faces. Despite the fact that her role in the movie did not require any acting skills, since all she had to do was pose threateningly before cribs, behind doorways — and memorably atop Kris’s box-type car — she did it with both ease and conviction. It helped that she looked the part. She didn’t require heavy makeup or prosthetics. She only needed to wear nondescript black garb, a toothless grimace, and her trademark long white hair, and she instantly became the movie’s greatest special effect. Lilia Cuntapay was truly scary, yet her fearsomeness was mostly because her character was sparsely defined, with no real motivations as to why she insisted on kidnapping the baby (merely, as it was explained early on in the movie, that the young family’s house was built on land where spirits roamed). The title of the episode somewhat suggests that Lilia Cuntapay’s goal is to nurture the baby as her own, to become maternal, and those human intentions, despite her being portrayed as a monster, are surprisingly believable.

Philippine cinema’s quintessential extra

Lilia Cuntapay has been referred to as Nanay by those who came to love her. A teacher and public servant prior to being discovered by Gallaga and Reyes — precisely because of her distinct look — Cuntapay etched a career from roles that would never win her awards or acclaim. She was the quintessential “extra” of Philippine cinema, the woman whose face was more recognizable than her name despite having played titular roles such as the devilish yaya in the previously mentioned Yaya, an aswang in Gallaga and Reyes’ Aswang (1992), and herself in Antoinette Jadaone’s Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay (2011). She struggled at the margins precisely because the industry she worked in would only hire her when there was a role that suited her features. She was the maid, the corpse, the loony old woman of choice, as we’ve seen in movies like Olivia Lamasan’s Madrasta (1996), Mario O’Hara’s Babae sa Bubungang Lata (1998) and Babae sa Breakwater (2003). She is the punchline to the jokes that would pit her perceived unsightliness and age with the perfect beauty and youth of more popular stars. She got naked on camera for either laughs or shocks. She did all those things because they were entertaining and she is in the business of providing entertainment. She did everything that she had to do, and she just didn’t have the name or clout to set limits. Simply put, she did more for the industry she worked tirelessly in than the industry did for her.

I remember the time when Jadaone, then an extremely talented filmmaker who only had a bunch of enjoyable short films to showcase her wit and cleverness, pitched Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay for the Cinemalaya batch where I sat as part of the screening panel. One of the panelists’ major concerns was whether or not Cuntapay, being the perennial extra in Philippine movies, could actually sustain an entire movie by herself. Jadaone didn’t make it to the roster of finalists, and I suggested to her that she enter her screenplay to Cinema One Originals. Jadaone was luckier there; the screenplay I fell in love with the first time I read it morphed into a funny, energetic and melancholic ode to the woman who represented — by virtue of her being the most visible of bit part performers — all the small people who continue to work for an industry that prioritizes those who are beautiful and famous. Cuntapay played a version of herself, a support part whose performance in one film gave her the chance to win an acting award. Her performance was poignant, not because it was a very precise and skilled showcase of acting prowess, but because it was one born of pure and affecting sincerity, birthed from decades of having to wait at the sidelines while everybody around her hogged the spotlight. Her time had come, and it was immensely beautiful, even if brief.

Putting a name to the face

Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay finally put a name to the face every child from the ‘90s vividly remembered. However, despite her having earned a Best Actress trophy from Cinema One Originals Film Festival and nominations from prestigious award-giving bodies, she still played the same roles that she had been playing prior to her brief stint as an awarded actress. While her screen times become more sizable, and her characters had actual names instead of being referred to as just “The Maid,” “The Aswang” or “The Old Hag,” she was still relegated to roles more comedic in nature, roles that didn’t require acting flair but her unique look. She became the unfortunate victim of a murderous bag in Joyce Bernal’s Segunda Mano (2011). In her last feature-length film, Jose Javier Reyes’ My Bebe Love (2015), she played an aged matriarch whose birthday celebration turned into a wild circus. She was working up to the very end, up until she got sick, which led her to request for financial aid from the public. She died last Aug. 20, leaving family and friends lamenting the loss of a loved one, and a country weeping because of the disappearance of someone whose life and career summed up the struggles of the countless many who have lived lives as nameless supports in a culture that is all about names.

There is no doubt that Lilia Cuntapay will always be remembered, maybe not as a great actress, but as someone whose dedication and fervor for all roles she played, however puny or thankless, enlarged everything around her, turning those scenes into icons and highlights.

Lola Isang died in faraway Abra several years ago. I still remember her face, her flowing silver hair that, by the time we got home from school, was already neatly fashioned into a bun, her impassioned curses in Ilocano, and also her sweet, sweet smile. Like Cuntapay, who lived a life serving an industry that only saw her as a character, Lola Isang lived most of her adult life serving me and my siblings who at that time saw her only as a precious nanny. She dedicated her mornings, days and nights to seeing me and my siblings turn out to be fine and successful adults, yet she passed away without ever seeing us, mainly because we were too busy with our own adult lives to visit her in the province. That is the tragedy of a life that has been dedicated to people — how there is no absolute assurance that the loyalty one has given will be equally repaid within the same lifetime. That is why we have these tributes to ease the burden, to at least immortalize the virtues of a life fully and honorably lived, lest they be woefully forgotten. That may not be enough repayment, but that is the most we can do.

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Tweet the author @oggsmoggs.

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