TV stations tend to screen full-length movies to fill the primetime void during the Holy Week and for this year, Channel 2 chose a back-to-back broadcast of local cinema’s two most iconic actresses of their generation. This entry will not pit Vilma-nians against Nora-nians, nor compare a slice of their sundry filmography. I do, however, find the selection interesting: the lightness and familiar environment of Ekstra contrasted by the duskiness and obscurity of a little town plagued by strange phenomena in Himala. I haven’t written a proper movie review after my first viewing so the re-watch was helpful in reassessing my initial verdict. Regardless, both films successfully mirror the Filipino way of life and thinking, but in varying degrees of depth and resonance.
“Follow the star” were the words printed at the back of an L300 van that dropped two batches of disheartened parents and their kids who were initially cast as the young Piolo Pascual and Marian Rivera in a top-rating evening drama. That is just one of the many blistering realities Loida Malabanan (Vilma Santos) witnesses and endures in her ‘professional’ stint as a bit player in Jeffrey Jeturian’s acerbic (if not candid) comedy of the working dynamics in show business. EKSTRA’s humor is grounded on the unflattering behind-the-scenes misfortunes and the unfaltering spirit of its lead character. But the film also imparts a bitter taste, a biting truth on how the commercialization of talents is acknowledged, and in the bit players’ case, are used in exchange of compensation. It’s in this rare occasion that the film allows the ordinary life stories of Loida and her peers to upstage their A-list screen partners.
The bit players.
Screened in the ninth Cinemalaya Film Festival (2013), EKSTRA had already invited attention through its lead star, the Star for All Seasons. The independent film cleverly builds its story through the casting: the irony of having one of the most celebrated actresses to perform the mundane gimmicks of an extra. More than a selling point, Santos is effective in bridging the audience’s sympathy to Loida who had long been a bit player. She still aspires for her break (a lengthier exposure on TV) but her small-time acting has been a reliable source of income for a single mother struggling in sending her daughter to college. Despite the cumbersome pre-dawn call times, inconvenient lay-bys and sometimes scathing remarks that are self-depreciating for the viewer’s delight, it’s safe to say that Loida and her co-extras are living their dream jobs. They find fulfillment in the smallest acting parts, regardless of whom they share the scene with. As Loida explains to an aspiring teenager, bit players are necessary to complete a scene. Their roles maybe inconsequential but theirs are what comprise of the real world that the show aims to recreate.
“Nauna Kang Naging Akin” production staff and lead actors. De Jesus on leftmost.
EKSTRA follows Loida’s two-day taping for the Pascual-Rivera drama “Nauna Kang Naging Akin” but the real entertainment unravels in the TV crew whose production troubles were made privy to the audience. The fluctuating levels of pressure, frustration and stress among the key staff oscillate between hilarity and austerity. Fortunately, the film spared itself from sinking to the quicksand of celebrity egotism and skipped justifying the supposed greatness of the soap opera. Instead, it focused on the unsung heroes: the extras and the production staff. Vincent De Jesus’ grudging and hassled portrayal of the assistant director is the heart of the comedy, from his sarcasm to weariness in achieving what the director requires. The real actors, including Cherie Gil, Tom Rodriguez and Pilar Pilapil, are no more than a backdrop for the more intriguing dynamics behind the camera. As the window that lets the public peek at the insides of television-making, EKSTRA’s fictitious production challenges were handled with resourcefulness that sometimes turns to rash improvisation, where Loida gets her first taste of stardom. But showbiz has two faces and the other side is where EKSTRA subtly succeeds…
Loida’s second ‘break’ with the Cherie Gil.
…or it could have done more. But EKSTRA is not a black comedy, nor a tragicomedy about pursuing fame. It’s a lite mixture of everything likable and unlikable in the industry. It’s a story about people who work in the unglamorous side of entertainment. Resilience is as important as confidence in this business so whereas the production staff is inured of the stress-fueled intimidation of the director, it registers differently to Loida. The physical and emotional strains they suffer, however, don’t make them as equals. The superiority complex exists in the production staff’s treatment of the extras as if they are just props (while the extras are naively consenting, desperate for the payoff). Even when the tension in the set dissipated, Loida regretted not acing her brief role. For her, it was a chance that got away, an opportunity of a lifetime to speak more lines, to have a more significant role that will recognize her as more than the average bit player. EKSTRA doesn’t end happily but departs in a contemplative tone about the life of an extra, and in the process, is commemorated for the sacrifices she made, not for the sake of art but for life.
The congenial cast (established TV extras appear as Loida’s co-bit players) and recognizable setting outline the light humor in EKSTRA, though a part of me would have like the indie film to be more daring and critical on its commentary of the very business it is in, without the expense of its comedy. The movie does make a star of the many bit players Loida represent. Despite her failure, I know, it won’t stop Loida in her career, along everyone else who committed a mistake in their chosen profession. Affable and enjoyable, EKSTRA has potential to be more than what it is. But on its own, it smoothly carries self-awareness with humor that is anchored in reality, and no melodrama can replace the virtue of modesty that this film observes.
Up Next: my imperfect take on the impeccable “Himala”