Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Jul 26, 2022 9:21 pm 
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A young Filipino spends all day struggling to get off a government hit list

Our previous experience of the films of Jun Robles Lana, who evidently is extremely well known in the Philippines, was the 2012 New York Film Festival selection, Bwakaw, for 2012 (a pretty great year for the NYFF), also with a gay main character and also involving locally famous actors. Though maybe local viewers or commenters make Big Night! more overtly political than it is, the terrorism of the dictatorial Duterte regime is the power that hovers over the protagonist, Dharna (the appealing Christian Bables), a young gay hairdresser, and determines all the action. Unlike Bwakaw's elderly gay lead character Dharna is openly gay, and has a boyfriend, Thor (Nico Antonio). The "Big NIght" is an event Thor is competing in that night, and that action is a big part of the celebratory structure that holds poor Filipino life together and one of the sub-climaxes of this busy, funny, disturbing film.

Things open with a casual street assassination, whose calm acceptance by bystanders shows how commonplace it is. Dharna gets an advance look at a new drug "Watch List" that has his name on it. That is, the old name he rejects, Panfilo Macaspac, Jr.; Dharna is his queer identity name that he embraces. He spends the rest of the action frantically seeking through favors and pleading to get it taken off, because being called in for "questioning" as an "addict" is an event that routinely leads to extrajudicial assassination. In the Philippines' surreal, Kafkaesque "war on drugs," it's the addicts who get punished, by the way, not the drug dealers. Dharna is neither; he's just caught up in the web.

The sequence of encounters with people possibly able to help Dharna get taken off the "watch list" leads to some funny, raunchy stuff. There's a little of everything, including a clash with Dharna's father (who accepts that he's gay) and with the spirit of his dead mother, smoking and now foul-mouthed, who turns out to be in hell, appropriately enough, since however ludicrous this action is, it's constantly hellish or at least purgatorial.

Some local authorities come in odd places, like a midwife, and to talk to her Dharna has to assist at a tandem birth event, two pregnant women lying side by side, one giving birth and one about to, both screaming. One viewer has suggested that Dharna's apparent difficulty looking at a vagina is either misogynistic or homophobic or both, but it's not certain anything is to be taken too seriously. There are plenty of dick jokes too. The film is full of grim jests and casual cruelty, especially the latter since the hero is constantly being put off or jerked around by petty authorities whom he is obliged to play up to.

There's an assurance in the completeness of scenes Dharna enters into, busy, messy, colorful collections of often ordinary characters who nonetheless harbor among them somebody who might have life and death power over someone as weak as Dharna, who's simply in no position to be dignified or brave. This is a world of petty power being ruthlessly exercised all the time.

After various petty officials who enjoy pretending to be important there's a former star from Filipino cowboy movies, Donato Rapido (John Arcilla). who comically shows off some of his old tricks. The favor he extracts is some dramatic acting by Dharna and his boyfriend in an ambulance, and it's obvious what's going on, and that in order to clear his name, Dharna has to sully it far more profoundly.

Big Night! has some longeurs: its semi real-time progression of trials has made that hard for director Lana to avoid. The film succeeds n in the details of its moment-to-moment texture more than in its overall structure, but it still manages a rather jaw-dropping finale. Local viewers, hoping for a thread of hope, are displeased with the cynicism of this ending. But despite the way Lana sugars the pill with lightness and camp, this is basically hell. And people see the truth of it.

Big NIght!, 105 mins., premiered at Tallinn Black Nights Nov. 25, 2021 and opened in theaters in the Philippines Dec. 25 2021. Screened for this review as part of the July 15-31, 2022 New York Asian Film Film Festival. New York premiere.

Wednesday Jul 27, 6:15pm
Film at Lincoln Center
Director Jun Robles Lana and Actor Christian Bables will attend the screening.

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