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Homage to bit players

Bong-Austero8First, the sad news.  Ekstra, the independent film that features Vilma Santos, the star for all seasons no less and one of the most bankable stars in the local constellation known as Philippine showbiz, bombed at the tills. Those who have been rooting for indie films are hard pressed to find an answer for the dismal box office performance of Ekstra.  Indie films are considered the last hope of the dying movie industry and Ekstra was supposed to help catapult them into the mainstream. There is sadder news.  Ekstra is a great film and deserves to be watched by all movie-loving Filipinos for several reasons, foremost of which is that it is far superior in all aspects compared to, say, the monster hits Sisterakas and The Other Woman. It must have been the timing.  The film was released right on the heels of the Habagat flooding and people probably still didn’t feel like having a great time and splurging on a film while hundreds of thousands of fellow Filipinos were still figuring out how to survive another week of being submerged in floodwaters.  Or it must have been because Ekstra didn’t hue to any of the tried and tested formulae that guaranteed box office success.  It wasn’t about a scandalous love triangle or about an incestuous affair.  The film also didn’t feature supernatural creatures or a heinous crime committed by a serial killer or deranged person.  Or it could also be because people still associate indies with the stereotyped art films – the ones that require great patience and perseverance to sit through. Ekstra is a film that tackles the inequities of the star system that operates within the local entertainment industry – and does so in the most effective way, which is to present a compelling case without bludgeoning people repeatedly on the head with the gravity of the topic or the sincerity of the project.  Neither does the film parrot political slogans although it sure could have toned down the tendency to take things to the level of the absurd.  But then again, it can be argued that what happens behind the scenes of teleseryes and movies are probably stranger than what gets shown onscreen. Because I have a friend who moonlights as a talent coordinator for certain television shows, I am aware of the difficulties bit players go through in an effort to get cast as part of the crowd - a security guard, party guest, farm worker, or even as ordinary people crossing the pedestrian lane with the main characters. I once spent a weekend as my friend’s unofficial “assistant.” I expected that the process of shooting a teleserye would be tedious; what I couldn’t believe was the amount of waiting required of everyone and the unbelievably wide chasm that existed between the lowly players in the industry and those with power.   It took hours to set up the lights, more hours to set up the props and the location, and even longer hours to wait for the main actors and actresses to get made up, finish rehearsing, or even just to show up.  And yet, bit players were expected to be ready at the drop of a hat. Jeffrey Jeturian, the same director who is behind the phenomenal teleserye “Be Careful With My Heart,” presents the pain, the difficulties, the joys, and the absurdities that bit players are forced to put up with for a few milliseconds of onscreen time and the resulting talent fee.  The expression “ang hirap kumita ng pera” must have been coined to refer to the kind of aggravations bit players go through to earn money.  Actually, most bit players don’t really make much unless they are cast in a minor role with a talking part.  But many persist.  Of course a large part of the motivation for doing the job is the psychological reward that comes with having been a part of a movie or a television show.  The truth is that being in a movie is still a big deal for many Filipinos; I know a CEO of a top corporation who still gets a kick from retelling the fortuitous events that led to a cameo role in a movie.   And like millions of other Filipinos, he also thinks he could have been a major star if he waited and was patient “for the right break to come.” Ekstra shows us that being a bit player is not as glamorous as many imagine it to be and that the entertainment industry is not the stuff many fantasize it to be.  Ekstra presents the stark naked truth about the local entertainment industry:  It’s a world where power is wielded without compunction by those who have it and where the inequities that are present in Philippine society are painfully more pronounced. I am not a great fan of Vilma Santos but I must concede that she is brilliant in this film.  It’s difficult to imagine Santos as an ordinary person but five minutes into the film she is able to successfully make people forget that she is one of the most glamorous actresses of the local entertainment industry and the governor of a province.  She is particularly riveting in the final scene where she silently breaks down in shame, regret, and a host of other emotions that are impossible to enumerate. Marlon Rivera (as director), Melvin de Jesus (assistant director), and Ruby Ruiz (talent coordinator) also turn in convincing portrayals.  It is tempting to give credit to Piolo Pascual, Marian Rivera, Pilar Pilapil, Eula Valdez, Cherie Gil, and Tom Rodriquez for doing able support, but then again, they are playing themselves in the movie. But the performers who make Ekstra worth watching are the actors who play bit players in the movie.  For a movie that does homage to bit players, Ekstra does a great job of showcasing how talented they can really be and are.    
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