MANILA, Philippines - It was a pleasant surprise.
The trailer for Sosy Problems was far from promising, but the film itself delivered.
It starts with a cheeky classification of our problematic social class hierarchies (I understand that some people have been offended by this but, really, given the context and humor of the film, it effectively sets the tone), then reveals its narrator as Ruffa Gutierrez, a TV bigwig who wants a story on the ultra-rich, specifically a crew of idle rich girls.
She sends reporter Jamie Yap (played by Tim Yap) to get the story.
Within that first framing sequence and montage, we get that the film is aware of itself as a film, aware that it is operating within pre-existing notions and expectations, and engaging a segment of our culture that is ripe for both social commentary and laughter.
That it hews so close to straight-up ridicule but manages still to have a heart for all of the characters is a credit to the film. It’s too bad though that the initial framing device, the news story, is dropped somewhere in the middle of the film, as is Gutierrez’s character. Her motivations for commissioning the story would have been something interesting to explore.
Instead, we go from a mere chronicling of their privileged existence to a conflict that is familiar to comedies. Rather than the need to save an orphanage or something like that, the 4 primaries — Rhian Ramos, Heart Evangelista, Solenn Heussaff and Bianca King — have to band together to save their country club from being turned into a “yaya mall.”
(It sounds terrible and politically incorrect and insensitive, and for the most part, it is. But if you take it with the kind of humor that the film is built around, this, among many other things, is pretty hilarious.)
Problematic for me is that their opponent is the newly-rich Bernice, a former cashier at the country club, who has made a fortune by selling a new beauty product. She is in cahoots with an evil rich Chinese businessman. The portrayal of the nouveau rich and the Chinese businessman teaming up to oppress both old rich and workers seems to need more engagement and thought. Which is to say that I feel that its political implications may not have been considered too well; sure it works for the story, but the meanings generated by this raise some red flags.
What partly saves the character of Bernice is the aplomb with which Mylene Dizon plays her. She is loud, raucous, all over the place and funny.
Luckily, Rhian Ramos and Heart Evangelista are no slouches either. We spend the most time with Ramos, who gets her own little storyline. It’s the expected “itapon mo sa probinsya para tumino” sub-plot; and while cliche, the actresses involved commit to it so well that they sell it.
There’s some physical comedy involved there that doesn’t come off as effectively as would have been hoped, in particular the 4 leads pulling each other into the wet fields and Ramos chasing down a pig. But when it goes for character humor rather than broad slapstick, it’s funny.
Evangelista comes across strong too, with lots of quick quips that are like comedic jabs, stunning you and then bringing out a chuckle. Too bad that she and Heussaff are dropped from the film for a fair amount of time while we follow Ramos and King’s storylines.
Enjoyable, too, about the Evangelista-Heussaff best friends storyline is the verbal fencing between their two mothers, played by Agot Isidro ang Cherie Gil. The best friends’ fighting over a boy and its resolution aren’t too great. But the whole affair generates enough laughs.
King’s storyline involves her chasing a rich boy to wed, so that she can dig her family out of debt. It’s a problematic resolution, probably offset by the character of her sister, who serves as a foil. The sister is the practical one with a sense of the world, and who thus resorts to working.
While many a woman will object to the thinking displayed by the character (and rightly so), I find that there is an even bigger statement to be made here that is missed. King’s family is plunged into debt and disgrace because her father, a congressman (played by Ricky Davao) is under investigation for corruption. (He’s got a golden moment here, won’t drop the spoiler, but suffice to say despite the limited screen time he gets one of the biggest laughs).
Here, it would have been interesting to see King's character contend with the concept that she deserves none of the luxuries that she has, or even better to force the character to face the fact that all of the things that she has are founded on thievery and stealing from the people. The film sidesteps these possibilities so that King’s Danielle can problematize how she can have friends and how people will like her if she’s poor.
But then that’s the kind of character we have. And the kind of movie that we have. We knew that coming into the theater. These characters are pushed towards epiphanies of a sort, but then these are also limited and not exactly the kind of epiphanies that the rest of us might have. That’s part of the joke, I guess.
On the whole though, despite some parts coming off as politically iffy (though there are lots of opportunities for deeper readings here, for example the hilarious protest where the primaries use planking to draw attention, and they just force people to protest without really understanding what it is they are protesting against), this comes off as a sharp, smart film. It understands the milieu in which it is being created. It makes fun of its characters, but also shows an affinity and care for them.
Like its characters and the actual people they are modeled on, Sosy Problems exists in a bubble, but within this fictional bubble it’s all filled with laughs and great gags and some well-executed moments.
Like I mentioned earlier, the initial narrative frame would have made this a stronger picture. And there’s an awkward (though it might be intentionally so) voice-over at the end explaining everything. I am left thinking that it is perhaps a meta-commentary, that the film is making a statement on itself.
You might say I am giving the flick too much credit, but I do think that it’s smart and self-aware enough to do so. There’s a lot of good writing here, and the acting as a whole is strong.
Sosy Problems is a flick that is entertaining, funny and manages it all with a knowing wink at the audience.
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(Carljoe Javier teaches at the UP Department of English and Comparative Literature. He has written a few books, most recently the new edition of The Kobayashi Maru of Love available from Visprint Inc. and the upcoming Writing 30 available as an ebook at amazon, ibookstore, b&n and flipreads.com.)