Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Melodrama Negra (2012)

Melodrama Negra (Maribel Legarda, 2012)

Like Loy Arcenas, Maribel Legarda has several years’ worth of theater experience to guide her first foray into filmmaking. Unlike Arcenas, whose first film is from an original screenplay by Rody Vera, Legarda chose to adapt for the screen an award-winning stageplay by Allan Lopez. Interestingly, Nino, Arcenas’ first film embraces theatricality, limiting most of its moments within the striking dialogues spewed by the characters with such exaggerated extravagance. Legarda’s Melodrama Negra, on the other hand, abandons theatricality in favor of gloss, spectacle and other cinematic excesses. Remnants of the material and Legarda’s stage roots linger, creating an uneasy mix of both theatrical and cinematic excesses.

Melodrama Negra opens with three wandering ghosts (Gee Canlas, Gerald Napoles and Bong Cabrera), wondering what they need to do to move on. Through flashbacks, their respective lives, all of which are typical sob stories designed primarily to grant humanity to those who are no longer human, are revealed. Their deaths are conveniently connected to the individual stories of the film’s living characters: an good-hearted thug (Gerhard Acao) who falls for a prostitute (Sheng Belmonte), a group of high school sociopaths (Nicco Manalo, Cindy Garcia, Ria Garcia) who stage the kidnapping of a congressman’s son and his girlfriend, and their respective respectable parents who have hidden monstrosities. Legarda fervently weaves the stories together, crafting a light-hearted and mostly cinematic take on the innate darkness of humanity.

Eskrimadors-director Kerwin Go turns cinematographer here, giving the material a palatable-enough look, appropriating for the material just enough polish to drown the bleakness. Myke Salomon’s musical score gives the picture a likable upbeat feel. Overall, Melodrama Negra has the tone of a genuine crowd-pleaser. Its humor is amiable. Its drama is relatively efficient.

Legarda is clearly in the business of entertaining. However, it is that eagerness to entertain that bars the film from being nothing more than a well-crafted offbeat caper. The film’s morbid impressions are nothing more than embellishments that serve the purpose of satisfying a curiosity or the need to be different. Its descent to the darkness of men feels false, unable to linger beyond the four corners of the darkened theater.

Melodrama Negra stands out when it doesn’t overreach, when it remains grounded, exploring emotions and relationships that are elementarily human. It leaps when it bares the grief of a drag queen who laments his foster son’s death through an impromptu ballad sung among friends. It flies when it exposes a sister’s concern for her younger sister who is traumatized by their sexually abusive father. It radiates when it tells the blossoming romance between a misunderstood bodyguard and his master’s favorite hooker. Unfortunately, these very human scenes are but half of the experience. The rest is enveloped in tolerable but ultimately forgettable artifice, the same artifice that can only work on stage, where the props, the acting, the lighting, and the sets are as large and as loud as the convolutions of Lopez’s theater-bound material.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

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