The society of respected film critics that hands out the annual Gawad Urian in cinematic excellence

La Visa Loca: Intelligent and entertaining

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Some 40 years ago — when the exchange rate was P4-$1 — getting a US Visa was literally a walk in the park. Armed with basic documents, you walked right through the US embassy (no lines in those days), which is off Luneta and — unless there is a valid reason for you to get “denied” — you’d get a US tourist visa good for six months.

Bachelor of Science in Education (BSE) graduates also left in batches and given teaching posts in the United States. It was the same with the commerce graduates and other professionals who finished four-year courses. Their papers were easily processed and eventually they landed good jobs in America and in time obtained US citizenship.

Incredibly enough, there weren’t that many takers of this generous offer from Uncle Sam here in the Philippines. Maybe because there weren’t that many Filipinos then. Fewer still were desperate Filipinos who were willing to exchange the conveniences of home for a life of uncertainty abroad.

But as poverty and bad governance started to creep into our shores, lines began forming at the US embassy in Manila and TNT (Tago Ng Tago) slowly entered Pinoy vocabulary. The US visa suddenly became difficult to obtain not for Filipinos whose dream is to migrate to the US, but also would-be tourists whose only wish is to see Universal Studios and Disneyland.

For many years, long queues starting at 2 a.m. were a familiar sight in front of the US embassy grounds. Today, I think the system is more orderly (but I was told more expensive for the Pinoy visa applicant). Everything is by appointment. But one thing has not changed: The desperate Pinoy will do anything and everything to obtain a US visa.

This is the theme of United Pictures’ latest offering, La Visa Loca, which casts Robin Padilla as a driver who ferries tourists from destination to destination within the city and even to some provinces. It’s a difficult life for him here and his diabetic father, played by Johnny Delgado. His only hope is to go the US and join a girlfriend there who is currently working on her American citizenship. The trouble is, he keeps getting “denied.” But like many other Filipinos, he keeps trying and does everything to get a visa and get to the United States.

La Visa Loca is written and directed by Mark Meily, whose impressive film debut was the critically-acclaimed Crying Ladies (also for Tony Gloria’s Unitel).

Although I enjoyed Crying Ladies a lot more, La Visa Loca is not exactly bad entertainment fare — oh no, not at all. In fact, not only is it entertaining, it is also intelligent, which sad to say — is a rare quality in the very few Filipino movies being produced today.

Trust the very talented Mark Meily to always come up with something new and ingenious — and all that we see in La Visa Loca.

So you want to witness a role reversal and see the Filipinos issuing visas to foreigners — with mostly Americans at the begging end? Or what about a hilarious crucifixion — without necessarily being sacrilegious? These are just some of the funny moments you will see in La Visa Loca, which has a May 25 playdate.

Although I assure you that there is laughter galore in this film, you also have to prepare to laugh at your own expense. Yes, a lot of the humor is directed at the Pinoy and his bad traits — and there are so many we all have to admit.

One scene is the very effective, very real, but sadly is no longer funny to the Pinoy, is the part where a foreigner calls us Thief! Thief! Thief! and all we can say is just ouch! ouch! ouch! because it is sometimes true and the truth hurts.

In the movie, a television host (played so wonderfully by former Rep actor Paul Holme) for an American show featuring anything odd and absurd comes to the Philippines to do an episode on faith healing — that all turns out to be, well, fake. He is also ripped off by other Pinoys here and at one point even becomes a victim of snatching.

Thieves we’re not. I know of a lot more honest Filipinos than crooked ones. But how do we explain that to tourists who get duped by our locals as soon as they get out of our airports — or probably even inside the airport?

The best scene in La Visa Loca for me, however, is this whole thing with Evangeline Pascual playing a Pinay who goes to the US and after a long time comes back a phony American very critical of the Filipino culture and especially the people. Although it is a very short part, Ms. Pascual comes out really fantastic. Following that is a very poignant moment (heart-wrenching, yet controlled) between her and Robin Padilla, who delivers the best performance of his career in this film. From beginning to end, Padilla is very effective — even brilliant in his scenes.

La Visa Loca, of course, has its flaws — like some jokes falling flat and the film’s middle part tending to drag. And how I wish Rufa Mae Quinto’s role had been better written to give justice to her proven talent in comedy.

Most Filipino viewers perhaps may not appreciate the Greek chorus portions that serve as the character’s conscience. Well, it is a novel idea and talents are nothing less than sterling: Tessie Tomas, Noel Trinidad, Marissa Sanchez, Isay Alvarez, and Robert Seña. Unfortunately — but I hope I’m wrong — that may not sit well with the local audience.

After the screening of La Visa Loca at the Cinema Evaluation Board (it has been graded A), some members couldn’t help but comment about how there is still hope for local film industry with this movie.

I say there is still hope if there is an audience — and I hope that it’s you — who would appreciate a film with a noble intention like this. — Butch Francisco