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Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay: A Horror Queen's Nightmare

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By Mike Rapatan

Antoinette Jadaone’s Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay tackles the earnest dream of the film’s eponymous protagonist to win an acting prize for Best Supporting Actress during the 16th AFTAP Silver Screen Awards ceremony. For Lilia Cuntapay, the award is not simply a recognition of her thespic abilities. The award is a validation of and a tribute to her thirty plus years of service and dedication albeit as a bit player to an industry she has come to love.

The film’s focus on a veteran film extra’s wish for fame may appear to be a shallow subject to pursue. But in the hands of Jadaone, who has a palpable rapport with and sense of empathy for her character, the film rises above the limitation of its material. Instead of presenting a chronicle where Cuntapay merely counts down the days leading to the big awards night, Jadaone takes us on a journey of reflexivity where the lines dividing fiction and reality and being and method blur. Although the film has a documentary style to it with Jadaone functioning as an off-cam interviewer, Jadaone turns the form inside out to produce a mockumentary where Cuntapay’s ambition is narrated in a tongue-in-cheek mode. With a winking yet knowing eye, Jadaone compares Cuntapay to Kevin Bacon as the pivotal intersecting point of a sociogram of actors and directors due to her long years of work in the industry. Throughout the film, Jadaone piles one layer of irony on top of another thereby giving the film a sans rival-like texture where pointed scenes of showbiz grit and indifference alternate every now and then with heartwarming sequences of human compassion and loyal friendship.

On one level, the film switches back and forth between Cuntapay’s anxious solicitation of ideas for her acceptance speech from her friends and neighbors and her fantasy of herself alone confidently addressing an empty gallery in a theater hall. Either scenario is just as surreal.

For one, the lady discovered by directors Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes in Shake, Rattle and Roll 2 for her striking pagan look and aswang being and henceforth did all sorts of feats in subsequent horror movies (such as descending upside down on a car’s windshield with her long tresses splayed out) to strike fear and dread in the hearts of unsuspecting victims is herself terrified by the prospect of delivering a brief thank you speech. The anticipation of winning and the mundane task of putting together a coherent message becomes so nerve-wracking for her that one of her friends facetiously advises her to fly to India and clear her mind a la Alicia Keys who meditated in ashrams prior to writing her global hit songs. Her imminent speech is no child’s play compared to the histrionic acts she endured such as in the iconic scene where Gallaga and Reyes tie her to a swivel chair and has a fan blow full blast into her hair as she screams like a banshee at a helpless Kris Aquino.

Jadaone’s premise then that the special effects that Cuntapay willingly took on are no match to the sting of reality is perhaps most poignantly depicted in the sequence where Cuntapay calls up her anak in the States and invites her friends from the neighborhood over to her small residence to watch on primetime news her interview by the news program TV Patrol as a supporting actress nominee. In true Pinoy fiesta fashion, the occasion becomes a major baranggay event akin to a film premiere where Cuntapay’s closest friends and neighbors squeeze themselves in a tight space and congratulate her for her newfound celebrity status.

But when the TV reporter’s segment plays excerpts from all of Cuntapay’s co-nominees interviews excluding hers, Cuntapay is visibly shaken and her guests try to cheer her up for the glaring omission. The incident becomes a living nightmare for her, its force more shocking than any horror movie she has played in. Embarrassed by the incident, Cuntapay fights back her tears and calls her anak and tells her to skip watching the program. This particular sequence from Cuntapay’s interview to her damage control phone call spans a wide gamut of emotions with its peaks and valleys wonderfully etched by Cuntapay and highlighted by Jadaone’s direction.

Jadaone allows the action and drama to flow by itself with no cloying sentimentality. She maintains a respectful distance from Cuntapay’s distress yet by the power of Cuntapay’s reel or real pain draws the audience in at close range to Cuntapay’s angst and the sad truth of her diminished stature as a film extra.

In classical Greek tragedy, such a moment of insight is often referred to as anagnorisis, the point in the play where the protagonist realizes his or her true identity. Similarly, Cuntapay’s public humiliation would also have sparked a scene of self-interrogation where Cuntapay questions the integrity of an industry that she thought valued professionalism and talent over pulchritude and beauty.

The non-broadcast of Cuntapay’s interview and loss during the awards night would also have been an occasion for Cuntapay to understand the buddy nature of the industry awards system and that as Gallaga incisively stated awards should not be the raison d’etre for staying in the industry. One makes movies because one loves movies. Rather than dramatize this process of critical introspection, Jadaone skips showing such scenes thereby marking a gap in the narrative as to the source of Cuntapay’s motivation. Jadaone skips to the end where she brings the viewer to the much anticipated awards night where Cuntapay after thanking friends and relatives finally declares herself as herself. Her self-pronouncement of her name signals her awakening from her personal slumber to an identity that is not circumscribed by industry expectations.

As a supporting actress playing a lead role, Cuntapay exhibits an engaging screen presence. Her effortless approach to acting revolving around being rather than method often seen in her depiction of ghoulish or monstrous figures is again demonstrated here where her portrayal of her human side seen in a few other films (e.g. in Mario O’Hara’s Babae sa Breakwater) gets maximum exposure. Her sincere interactions with her aide, Myra (self-effacingly portrayed by Geraldine Villamil) particularly in the scene where Cuntapay rehearses her lines with her, unveil her own process of internalization. By blending pathos with humor, trauma with resilience, and professionalism with compassion, Lilia Cuntapay delivers from a 360-degree view an endearing and memorable performance.