Review: Cesar Apolinario And Marnie Manicad's DANCE OF THE STEELBARS Is A Melodramatic Mess That Completely Misses The Point

After a rap-fuelled montage of various shots of Cebu City's bustling streetscapes, the gravelly voice of Patrick Bergin introduces the provincial jail of Cebu as some sort of hell on Earth. The images that accompany Bergin's lengthy opener seem to support his assessment. Prostitution is rampant. Gambling is commonplace. Bergin rambles on about the rampant corruption inside the prison, and how the warden, a brute of a man who lords over his kingdom of thieves and murderers, has kept the place in a persistent state of desperation. However, death is also a commodity, and power is a prize worth paying for. A riot takes place. The warden is found dead. The perps, the assistant warden and his lackey, have begun preparations for their own take-over. Bergin's testimonial seems to be accurate.

Cesar Apolinario and Marnie Manicad's Dance of the Steelbars opens with some sort of promise. The directors, without wasting any time, drape their film with a semblance of grit and anger, the stuff that usually fuel the most ordinary of prison stories to greatness. Unfortunately, that initial promise seems to be the only near-great thing in the film, and the greater the promise, the more resounding the fall. The film falters right after Bergin's stirring description of his Cebu prison. The corrupt warden is replaced by a kind one, who initiates various reforms, the most pertinent of which is a morning dance exercise. The initial grit dissipates. The anger is mostly censored. What remains are just seeds of awful melodrama, seeds that Apolinario and Manicad fervently cultivate into what essentially is a hit-or-miss affair that confuses advocacy for advertisement.

So Bergin plays Frank Parish, an American who gets erroneously imprisoned for the death of someone he was just trying to help. Frank's prison pals include Allona (Joey Paras), a gay man who pins his hope on his British penpal who thinks he's a girl, and Mando (Dingdong Dantes), a dance instructor who is imprisoned for killing a gay man who attempted to seduce him. Apolinario and Manicad spend most of the film woefully exploring their various dilemmas, from Frank's vapid apprehension to help other people to Mando's shallow father issues.

As in all lazily-written sagas, a deus ex machina appears to save the day. Here, the deus ex machina is a politician, who unceremoniously grabs the limelight from the real heroes of the film. This is perhaps the film's biggest sin. In the guise of advocacy, it maneuvers its focus from the inspirational inmates to needy attention-whores, making it seem like their success is more a product of bureaucratic intervention than the prisoners' own will to reform. Instead of depicting actual efforts of the inmates to change and break common conventions, Apolinario and Manicad decide to manufacture melodramas that are nowhere near as inspirational as a pixelated video of a thousand hopeful orange-suited felons grooving to Michael Jackson's Thriller.

Thankfully, Apolinario and Manicad decide to end the film with a choreographed number by the Cebu prisoners. Although inconsistently shot, the finale at least reminded the film's viewers as to why it exists, not because of the manicured faces of moneyed politicos and the big-named celebrities, or the American man who strangely becomes the viewers' eyes and ears to what essentially is a Filipino experience, but because of the prisoners who took that one step away from the world's expectations and as a result did wonders. Sadly, even in that final number, the dance would still give way to awkward close-ups of faces the film never needed, enunciating either Apolinario and Manicad's fatal confusion or their compromised ambition.

(Cross-published in Lessons from the School of Attention.)
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