Thirty-two years after West End brought Filipino musical theater talent to the international stage in a major way via “Miss Saigon,” the European movie industry, with Hollywood connections, is finally catching up: It’s putting Philippine-born, -raised, and -based actors on the world cinema map with lead roles in high-profile films.
And just like Lea Salonga, character actors Dolly de Leon, Soliman Cruz, and Chai Fonacier turn in stellar performances that make for a triangle of excellence in acting.
‘Triangle of sadness’
Dolly de Leon is billed alongside Hollywood veteran Woody Harrelson in this comedy that won the Palme d’Or (Best Film) in this year’s Cannes Film Festival, but she actually has the bigger role. In fact, according to the film’s director, Danish maverick Ruben Östlund, whose previous movie, 2017’s “The Square,” also won the Palme d’Or, the Filipino veteran plays one of the three characters that make up the film’s titular triangle. But unlike the other two—a gorgeous young couple who are hotshot fashion models, one a social media influencer to boot—De Leon practically appears only in the film’s final third. She runs away with the entire film, anyway.
There are huge reasons for that. One, her Abigail, a cleaning lady working in a super high-end luxury cruise, stands out as the most interesting and the most crucial in the film’s large gallery of characters. Not only is it the most different, it’s also the character that puts the film’s raucous, vicious, sometimes indulgent and over-the-top satire about privilege and social and sexual politics to sharpest focus. It’s likewise what revs the film’s narrative engine into motion. (That Abigail is given many of the punchiest zingers in the film is a big bonus.)
Two, there’s De Leon’s performance itself—deadpan and subline in a movie that’s often unsubtle, but still manages to be vivid and lived-in despite the script’s silence on Abigail’s life except to say she doesn’t have kids. (It doesn’t even say where she’s from.) It’s an implosive tour de force that ends in a thrilling scene where De Leon moves from excitement to surprise to despair to, finally, rage in a matter of seconds without much dialogue.
It’s a tsunami of emotions that’s nothing short of an acting masterclass.
‘To the North’
Soliman Cruz conducts his own masterclass as the lead in this Romania-produced maritime drama that competed in the 2022 Venice Film Festival (and bagged the Best Film award from an independent group of critics).
But unlike De Leon, Cruz dominates the entire film from start to end. He plays the role of Joel, a deeply religious Filipino seafarer in an international cargo ship whose good-Samaritan deed of helping a young Spanish stowaway survive in hiding from the ship’s higher authorities during a 4-day trans-Atlantic trip from Spain to Canada opens major questions on morality, ethics, and professionalism. And it puts the entire crew’s jobs on the line.
Cruz brings burnished grandeur to Joel, as he finds himself forced to navigate the intersecting roads between his personal responsibilities (even mission) as a Bible-quoting follower of and brother in Christ and his earth-bound obligations as a senior at work, in an attempt to save the stowaway from certain death: If the higher-ups discover the ship’s hidden passenger, they will throw him overboard in the middle of the sea as they did his companion and many others before him. Joel finds conspirators in two fellow Filipino crew members whose support is not quite full; one is even quite reluctant. He persists, anyway, and Cruz portrays him with stoic, solemn authority as a stubborn, proud Christian whose faith in God’s plan, providence, and protection is as unassailable as the ship captain’s commitment to maritime rules.
This makes the film’s climax especially harrowing as Joel is struck very hard by the reality that good does not always triumph in the end despite the valiant efforts of good men like him. As in “Triangle of Sadness,” the final moments of “To the North” give its main star the opportunity to unleash all his thespic powers, and Cruz is haunting in his portrayal of Joel’s ocean-wide regret and remorse and sea-deep devastation and defiance.
Chai Fonacier does not get the same kind of “acting showcase” final scene in her first international starrer, but she runs away with the movie just as De Leon and Cruz do with theirs.
She plays the role of Diana, a nanny from Cebu who pops up unannounced one day in the London home of an English upper-middle-class couple, Christine and Felix (played by Hollywood actors Eva Green and Mark Strong), and their young daughter, Roberta. Diana claims that Christine sent for her and that she can help with her lingering mysterious illness that sends her into bouts of anxiety and depression, moments of forgetfulness, and fits of uncontrollable shaking. It stemmed from a strange encounter with a big black tick-infested dog in her office, or so Christine thinks.
The movie comes across as a psychological horror story until it reveals its real character as a supernatural thriller as Diana’s backstory unfolds. If that makes the film sound pretty standard, it’s because it largely is. What elevates it from the usual is its decision to tap into Asian folklore and exoticism rather than Latin American, and its use of the dark underbelly of First World capitalism as framework, even though it’s mostly surface-level.
And there’s Fonacier who, despite her petite frame (standing only slightly taller than her 9-year-old co-star), is able to make Diana loom large over her co-actors in every scene. Her big, full round eyes betray none of Diana’s steely determination as a female shaman with a dark plan even as they register innocence, excitement, uncertainty, hope, and pain during her younger years as an impoverished lass in Cebu.
Fonacier locates the film’s bleeding heart and twisted mind, but her performance is limited by the film’s shortcomings and is not a home run in the way De Leon and Cruz’s are. Nonetheless it’s a solid debut in the international cinema scene.
“Triangle of Sadness” opens in local cinemas this Wednesday. —Ed.
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