The rise of the bit player
MANILA, Philippines - If you know who Lilia Cuntapay is, give yourself a pat on the back.
You’re probably a true Pinoy movie fan.
If you don’t, then the film “Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay” is a good introduction into the life of one of Pinoy cinema’s most fascinating personalities.
For the uninitiated, Lilia Cuntapay (pronounced KOON-ta-pai) is a professional bit player in countless movies. An “extra,” if you will.
She is probably best known for her work in horror movies, the witch or aswang that delivers the scares, although with the release of her headlining film, this may soon change.
Directed by Antoinette Jadaone, “Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay” was first screened in the Cinema One Originals Film Festival last year. Done in the “mockumentary” style (think TV’s The Office or Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat), the film follows Cuntapay, who plays a version of herself, after she unexpectedly earns a nomination for Best Supporting Actress in the fictional AFTAP Awards.
She writes and re-writes her acceptance speech, goes to her local couturier for a dress fitting and hosts a viewing party in her tiny home for an interview with news program TV Patrol that is initially hilarious but soon becomes painfully moving.
The title is a reference to the idea that you can connect any two actors through 6 films or less, a concept most popularly attributed to and often involves Hollywood actor Kevin Bacon. (There is even animation in the film establishing Cuntapay’s connection to Bacon.)
Throughout the film, she interacts constantly with her “Direk” Jadaone, who remains off-screen. There are also interviews with acclaimed directors Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes, who plucked Cuntapay out of obscurity and cast her in her most haunting (in more ways than one) role yet — the yaya in the eponymous episode of the horror trilogy Shake, Rattle and Roll Part 3 in 1991.
“When I first saw her, hindi siya parang ‘aswang’ e,” Gallaga says. “Aswang siya talaga.”
With her waist-length white hair and toothless snarl, it’s easy to see how Cuntapay has been typecast in all those old lady monster roles, but the film does more than shove a relative unknown into the brighter lights of somewhat-stardom.
The still-hip 76-year-old represents the countless bit players who eke out a living in an industry that treats them pretty badly. The hours are long, the company can be cruel and the pay is often negligible, but they do it anyway.
Some are kept alive by the promise of fame and fortune — perhaps a heftier paycheck or an acting trophy — but I suspect most are in it simply for the thrill of it.
Call it passion, call it their life’s calling, but it’s what burns inside people like Cuntapay that keeps them motivated, most of all.
If there is one complaint about the film, it’s the overuse — or misuse — of the hyperrealist approach. Shaky handheld camerawork may heighten the viewer’s sense of actually participating in the action onscreen, but too much of it could lead to a case of vertigo. There were times when I felt like the cameraman had Parkinson’s disease.
Also, the constant shift from fantasy sequences to reality, and from interviews to the main narrative, was a little messy at times. The film could have certainly benefited from tighter, more concise editing.
Still, these are relatively minor concerns when stacked up against the real strength of the film — Cuntapay herself.
She had good comic timing and also knew how to tug at the heartstrings. Her unspeakable sadness after the news footage screening is one of the most memorable scenes in the movie, further highlighting her acting skills.
The real triumph, though, is that we, the viewers, will never know when she was playing a role and when she was simply being herself. When she can disappear into a role so completely that she inhabits it and makes us believe, that for me is the mark of a true actress.
And by god, Lilia Cuntapay certainly deserves that title.
It may have taken her years, but she’s finally getting the recognition she deserves. - Rappler.com
Paul John Caña is the managing editor of Lifestyle Asia magazine and is a live music geek. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @pauljohncana