Namets! (Jay Abello, 2008)
Englist Translation: Yummy!
This year's edition of the Cinemalaya Film Festival has a gigantic burden placed upon it: Chris Martinez's 100 details the final few weeks of a cancer victim; Michael Cardoz's Ranchero is about a day in the life of prison cooks; Francis Pasion's Jay begins with the mysterious murder of a gay Religion teacher; Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil's Boses (Voice) is about a maltreated kid who turns out to be a violin virtuoso; Paul Morales' Concerto is set during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines; Paul Sta. Ana and Alvin Yapan's Huling Pasada (Final Stop) is about a writer struggling with the effects of a recent marital annulment; Tara Illenberger's Brutus tackles illegal logging and the treatment of indigenous people; Ned Trespeces' My Fake American Accent reflects on the repercussions of the call center phenomenon; and Joel Ruiz's Baby Angelo tries to solve a mystery revolving around an aborted baby found in the dump site near an apartment complex. Jay Abello's Namets! (Yummy!), a last-minute addition to the feature film line-up, promises to be "lighthearted" and "angst-free," something the film festival desperately needs.
Namets! is a syrupy romance between two young ex-lovers. Jacko (Christian Vasquez) is a local restauranteur who in order to pay all of his gambling debts, cedes ownership over his Italian restaurant to Dolpo (Peque Gallaga), a gluttonous businessman. Cassie (Angel Jacob), Jacko's ex-girlfriend, is recruited by Dolpo to help Jacko re-imagine the restaurant, suggesting that they specialize on local cuisine instead of Italian food. Thus, Jacko and Cassie travel around Bacolod City, trying out the different native meals as their research, twisting the preparation and the presentation a bit, making the meals more visually palatable and commercial. As the two squabble, argue, and later on agree on the direction of the restaurant, they predictably fall in love.
Namets! is set in Bacolod City, the largest city in Negros, an island that is dotted by sugar plantations owned by the wealthy, who inherited the land from their spanish-blooded ancestors. Thus, the city itself is characterized by the social stratum that exists within these sugar plantations: the rich are few but predominant, while everyone else is struggling to survive. Recent trends in economy (like globalization, making Negros' control over sugar supplies less persuasive) have downsized the wealth of the old rich, opening the gates for enterprising businessmen (the noveau riche) to lord over the city. These social dynamics have turned Bacolod into one of the few cities in the Philippines that has a distinct personality, developing for itself a vibrant culture, and more importantly to foodies, a unique cuisine, characterized by a healthy mix of Spanish and Filipino influences, sweetened up.
Notwithstanding this milieu that opens possibilities for discourse even for a lighthearted and angst-free romantic comedy, Namets! adamantly dodges every opportunity to tackle anything more pertinent than romance and food with the efficiency of a seasoned politician. The film actually acknowledges the complexities of the city's social dynamics (when the two lovers eat dinner on top of the tallest building in Bacolod, Cassie opens up on the fact that her family hasn't always been rich, unlike Jacko's), but never really treats it more than a neglected footnote. True to its promise, Namets! perseveres on limiting itself to an existence as a negligible piece of cinematic entertainment, no baggages whatsoever.
However, even with that simple-minded endeavor, Namets! fails. The film attempts to survive with sheer charm and novelty, two elements it severely lacks. The film is as charming and as novel as an afternoon soap, only in Namets!'s case, the characters speak in Ilongo and there's a ferocious affectation for food. Sadly, the dialect spoken, the delectable food, even the often hilarious intermissions (the best one stars Ronnie Lazaro as a farmer who attempts to slaughter a chicken, then a goat, then a dog; his plans are being foiled by the teary pleas of his son), are all ornamental. I was not expecting Namets! to change the course of cinema, nor was I expecting it to be anything more than a delightful one or so hours in the cinema. Namets! failed to delight me. In fact, it infuriated me because with the already lowered expectations, I was delivered a product that is half-baked and mediocre. If Namets! was food, it's the one I'd puke out immediately after swallowing.