SFIAAFF 2011: EMIR (2010): REVIEW


[We revisit Francis "Oggs" Cruz's review of this Filipino musical programmed into SFIAAFF 2011.]

Now that Michael Hawley has provided his helpful overview of the lineup for the 2011 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF), let's hone in on specific films. Last year's edition of SFIAAFF shone a spotlight on the national cinema of the Philippines with a retrospective sampling of the work of Lino Brocka. Not only was this a welcome embrace of the Filipino community into SFIAAFF's Asian American demographic, but afforded opportunity for Twitch to collaborate with three of the Philippines' leading young critics: Francis "Oggs" Cruz, Richard Bolisay, and Dodo Dayao. It made for one of my most informed years with SFIAAFF. Following through this year, Francis "Oggs" Cruz has graciously agreed to let me replicate three of his reviews of Philippine films programmed at SFIAAFF 2011. These reviews were previously published at his site Lessons From the School of Inattention and then cross-published here at Twitch.

First up, Chito S. Roño's Emir (2010), whose Variety review--"jaw-dropping in both good ways and bad"--has been recommendation enough for Michael Hawley to scramble for a seat. Myself, I watched Emir on screener and appreciated it for taking me away from my "garlic-scented life" and the dreary monotony of "plaguing rats hiding their tails in the cornfield." Interesting more for its regional inflection of what it self-envisions as a sing-a-long musical than the actual musical numbers themselves (though the "jetsetter nanny" sequence was an amusing guilty pleasure), I appreciated Oggs' review because of its insider's unflinching perspective on what Emir actually means within the context of Philippine film production. His perspective helped me articulate my basic discomfort with the dramatic structure of Emir, despite its seductive escapism into song and dance. Though I have reservations about the political incorrection of the film, Emir's production values are undeniably attractive and will, no doubt, project beautifully on the Castro Theater's large screen.
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"To invest funds and other assets in such activities or undertakings that shall directly and indirectly promote development of the film industry, including the production of films and other terms and conditions as it may deem wise and desirable."--Section 3 (9), Republic Act 9167 entitled "An Act Creating the Film Development Council of the Philippines, Defining its Powers and Functions, Appropriating Funds Therefor, and Other Purposes"

Chito Roño's Emir, a seventy-million peso endeavor by the Film Development Council of the Philippines, with generous funding from the President's social funds and other government sponsorships or partnerships, looks exactly the part. Set in the most picturesque locations in the Philippines, from the grandiose Banaue Rice Terraces to the rustic Paoay Church, and Morocco, the film is mostly lovely to look at, exactly like moving musical postcards from various touristy destinations. The film also sounds expensive, with the several musical numbers utilizing full orchestrations to sweeping and rousing effect. It seems that every peso of the film's unusually hefty budget was appropriately spent.

The question remains. Is Emir, a movie that tackles the experiences of Filipino overseas contract workers, deserving of such governmental support? Considering that the mandate of the Council is for the development of the film industry and not the promotion of overseas labor or local and international tourism, is the decision to concentrate such a budget on one expensive production a wise one, when it would be undoubtedly more helpful for the development of the film industry if such immense budget was spread to many filmmakers who have films that are just waiting for a fraction of the seventy million pesos to get made? The reasons and rationales for Emir's existence [are] of course in the arena of discretion; discretion that it is of the greatest import to celebrate the accomplishments of overseas contract workers through a film, an expensive musicale that is half-set in a foreign country. Decisions arising from discretion are sadly a very difficult thing to controvert, and suspicious minds can only entertain--well--suspicions. The film has been made, and the issue of whether or not this decision--based on the discretion of a government whose past discretions or indiscretions have always been questioned but have never been answered--is proper [or] better discussed in other venues.

Partly based on the true story of a crown prince of an Arab nation who can fluently speak both Tagalog and Ilokano, Emir tells the story of Amelia (Frencheska Farr), the daughter of poor farmers who travels to Yememeni, the fictional oil-rich Arab nation that is on the verge of being invaded by its neighbors, to be able to reverse the fortune of her family. She is employed in the household of a sheik and is assigned to be the nanny of the sheik's only son. True to her job, she rears the child not only to be appreciative of Filipino culture but to treat that culture as his very own, often interrupting his expected English or Arabic with bursts of fluently-spoken Filipino phrases. While not tending to her ward, she either swoons for a half-Arabic half-Filipino man (Sid Lucero) or entangles herself with the issues of her co-workers.

Admittedly, there is something engrossing about telling the stories of these so-called modern heroes, those Filipino men and women who risk parting with their families and endangering their lives to earn enough for their families back home and whose only connection with the motherland is through these Filipino-made microphone-like contraptions that showcase Philippine vistas while displaying the lyrics to all-time favorite karaoke tunes, through song. However, Emir, even with its string of original songs, cannot muster enough sincerity to even approximate a fraction of the overseas experience. The film seems satisfied in approximating its influences, from its opening number, where hyperactive nurses, construction workers and dancers back-flip and gyrate to the incoherent rhythm of a song about the promises of overseas employment, which feels like a ghastly mix of Disney and Demy, to the lone near-lifeless Bollywood number where non-Filipino employees of the sheik suddenly enter the picture and dance to a pseudo-Arabic ditty, in token acknowledgment of their existence. Save for O, Maliwanag na Buwan (O, Shining Moon), a high-powered duet that resembles the raw emotionality and the unabashed lyricism of Aegis' greatest hits, and is sung sublimely by heartbroken Amelia and Tersing (Kalila Aguilos), who at that given point in the film were both left by their men, all of the songs of this musicale are fleeting and unremarkable.

Had its uninspiring musicality been its only problem, Emir could still have been a mildly entertaining diversion. However, the film propagates a dangerous fantasy of a reality that gnaws on the very core of what essentially is a national pride. In Hindi Ko Pinangarap (I Never Ambitioned)--the musical number where Ester (powerfully played by veteran singer-actress Dulce), who recently resigned from her job as governess of the house, proceeds to convince Amelia to take the job--she pronounces that the job she reluctantly gave up is the pinnacle of their existences, irresponsibly reinforcing a culture of highly-paid servitude as opposed to self-fulfillment. This is basically the problem with Emir. While it is unwise to blind ourselves to the reality that the Philippines is surviving because it is exporting labor to richer nations, Emir never regards this resignation to this new form of colonization (a near-accurate term especially because this system of economy that relies solely on the fact that other nations are in need of Filipinos' services and have the capacity to pay for Filipinos' services result in the Philippines' being subservient to other countries' superior wealth), as a serious problem, which it is.

As it is, Emir treats all these, from the very real problems of these immigrant workers to the bigger picture of the country being taken hostage by employer nations, as popcorn entertainment, equivalent to a weekend noon-time variety show and nothing more. The fact that the government, in all its benevolent discretion, decided to go this way in its efforts to improve film production in the country, makes the pain--although forcibly disguised in fancy colors and upbeat tunes--even more resounding.

Cross-published on The Evening Class.
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