The second annual 20th anniversary New York Asian Film Festival took place from July 15 to July 31. For more information on what you missed, click here
When one watches a significant portion of the slate for the NYAFF it’s a not entirely uncommon occurrence to find parallels between the various films in the lineup. Sometimes it’s an actor showing up in multiple films, sometimes you’ll see the same story told from various angles, and sometimes it’s something a bit more esoteric, somewhat more difficult to properly articulate.
Which is a long windup to saying that in watching Jun Robles Lana’s Phillipines-set dark comic Big Night!, I found some curious common ground between it and Life For Sale, though they’re telling very different stories.
Besides the very surface read of two people who wind up fighting for their lives, albeit one who slowly learns to value life, or at least point death towards worthwhile ends and one is someone very invested in their own survival from the jump, there is the fact that they both take place in a world that is rotten to the core.
And yet, there’s something strangely inviting about Area 2, the district where much of Big Night! takes place. Sure,the movie opens with an assassination in broad daylight, but other than that there’s a sense of community that shines through, a sense that everybody knows everybody, and a rather endearing matter-of-fact acceptance of queer lifestyles.
Our hero, the openly gay hairdresser Dharna, is a well-liked and valued citizen, friend to anybody who needs to look presentable. And the Big Night in question is a beauty pageant at the local gay bar, an event which is seemingly attended by everyone, up to including the head of the police and assorted other influential figures, without shame or derision.
In some ways, it almost feels aspirational.
Give or take the Government sanctioned murders, mind you.
Much is made, as we open of the War On Drugs, a zero tolerance endeavor that has sanctioned the implementation of watchlists, where citizens’ names can be submitted to a list marking them out as part of the drug trade, whether it be as user or supplier. And the people on these lists have a tendency of ending up dead.
The lists are confidential, but the steadfastly drug free Dharna learns his name has inexplicably wound up on the latest one, and sets out to do everything in his power get it removed.
And… there’s your story.
As the title somewhat implies, the film more or less takes the form of a “one crazy night” narrative, where Dharna’s quest unfolds over the space of roughly twelve or so hours, running around on something of a goose chase trying to clear his name and encountering all manner of eccentric characters in the process.
Dharna’s first stop is Cynthia the Chief of Police (Eugene Domingo), who engages in a little quid pro quo involving him pinch hitting for an errant mortician, which in turn leads him to the District head (whose purported homophobia is remarked upon but goes pleasingly unexplored), which leads him to his semi-estranged family, which leads him to…. and so on.
And all the while, he must deal with his cute and more than somewhat self-absorbed boyfriend Zeus (Nico Antonio), who seems slightly more focused on his goal of winning the contest than the very real possibility that his boyfriend might be a murder target if he can’t set things straight.
Zeus’ constant badgering of Dharna to come back and finish his costume, as well as some questionable fidelity, seem to mark him off as somehow who needs to get kicked to the curb toot sweet. But in one of the multiple surprises the film has in store, their adorably goofy chemistry turns out to be one of the highlights of the film, especially after Zeus starts taking Dharna’s quest a bit more seriously.
Christian Bables’ performance as Dharna anchors the proceedings with a surfeit of charm; even as the sense of desperation mounts, he never quite manages to lose the twinkle in his eye; he manages to sell a comic set piece where he has to help deliver the baby of a pregnant woman he stumbles onto, while hitting on the husband of another woman who is also in the process of giving birth.
It takes a hell of a lot of charisma to make a thing like that work, and damned if Bables doesn’t manage it.
But it’s just a film that is generous to all of its players in general; everybody, no matter how small the role, gets a moment to shine. Special notices go out to Soliman Cruz as Mr. Roja, the hypocritical District President who loves fitness almost as much as he loves massages with happy endings; and Awra Briguela, who puts in a brief appearance as Dharna’s sister, who has an annoying knack for predicting everything going wrong in Dharna’s life before he gets the chance to say anything.
The other thing that Big Night! Shares with Life For Sale is that it’s a movie that gets less funny the longer it goes on; the further from home he gets and the more of the world he is exposed to, the bleaker things seem, and those moments of community and good humor seem farther and farther away. And when the laughs do come, they tend to stick in the throat; Dharna and Zeus’ run-in with another District President who happens to be a famous actor (Jon Arcilla as Donata, making a late in the game play to steal the entire film out from under everybody), Zeus’ fawning adulation is hilarious… up until we realize exactly what’s really going on, and the laughter… stops.
In the end, there is a palpable anger in Big Night!, and one that makes sense given the world we’re allowed access to. By the time we get to the ending that feels somehow like the closest possible thing to a win and yet still unbearably bleak, the goofy laughs we thought we were getting start to feel more like a scream.