Only in Hollywood

[Only IN Hollywood] Dolly de Leon leads 2022 Filipino newsmakers in international entertainment

Ruben V. Nepales
[Only IN Hollywood] Dolly de Leon leads 2022 Filipino newsmakers in international entertainment
2022 is also the year that our overseas Filipino workers – our hardworking heroes laboring in many places all over the world – became very visible in significant films

It was the year of Filipino character actors suddenly and deservedly getting the limelight in breakout roles in international cinema.

Dolly de Leon, Soliman “Sol” Cruz, and Chai Fonacier – not the usual fair-skinned talents who rule the Philippines’ entertainment scene – got their biggest breaks not at home but on the world cinema stage. When 2022 started, Dolly, Sol, and Chai were just among many very talented actors who appeared in supporting roles in Philippine film, television, and theater.

By sheer serendipity and coincidence, the three international films that the trio bagged quietly and without any fanfare opened this year. But the performances of Dolly (Triangle of Sadness), Sol (To the North), and Chai (Nocebo) in their respective movies ensured that they will no longer be almost anonymous.

CANNES. Dolly de Leon in Cannes, where it all began. Photo by Ruben V. Nepales

2022 was also the year that our overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) – our hardworking heroes laboring in many places all over the world – became very visible in significant films, represented by Dolly’s yacht worker, Sol’s seaman, and Chai’s househelp/nanny.

Add Stefanie Arianne’s caregiver in Plan 75, Japan’s entry to the Oscars’ Best International Feature Film race, to world cinema’s nod to OFWs this year.

Buzz for Dolly has not stopped ever since Ruben Ostlund’s Triangle of Sadness premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last May. I entered a theater on the Croisette not even knowing that there was a Filipino actress in the satire of the 1%, the super-rich in this world.

But Dolly caught my eye when I first espied her wordlessly toiling as the toilet manager in an ultra-luxurious mega yacht. By the end of Triangle of Sadness, which went on to win Cannes’ top prize, the Palme d’Or, the diminutive yet commanding actress – as Abigail who catches the fish and starts the fire (you have to watch the film) – has run away with the film.

When I first met Dolly in Cannes and wrote about her, I could not find a single feature article on her. Now, she has landed as a feature subject on the pages of top publications, from Vanity Fair to The New York Times.

As 2022 ends, the humble single mother of four made history as the first Filipino to earn a Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture nomination in the 80-year history of the Golden Globe Awards. She’s in excellent company – Angela Bassett (Black Panther: Wakanda Forever), Kerry Condon (The Banshees of Inisherin), Jamie Lee Curtis (Everything Everywhere All at Once), and Carey Mulligan (She Said).

Dolly is also the first Filipino to win the Best Supporting Performance award from the Los Angeles Film Critics. She tied with Ke Huy Quan for Everything Everywhere All at Once.

The University of the Philippines (UP) alumna, who has worked with Lav Diaz and Erik Matti and has extensive theater experience, is also nominated for Best Supporting Actress honors by several critics’ groups. These awards will be announced on various dates as this year closes.

Not to mention that Dolly has been getting glowing comments in reviews of Triangle of Sadness.

Here’s my quotable quote by Dolly, the first of several memorable ones I will be citing from my year-round interviews with talents: “I’m proud to be representing a country with a lot of very talented artists who have so much to offer the world. I find comfort in the thought that every Filipino is with me on this journey. And they are.”

In another festival, last September’s Mostra Internazionale d’Arte Cinematografica di Venezia (Venice), the pleasant surprise was provided by Soliman Cruz. In To the North (Spre Nord), Mihai Mincan’s Romanian entry which is based on a 1996 true story, Soliman has the lead role – Joel, a religious Filipino seaman, who finds a stowaway aboard a ship already on its transatlantic journey. (READ: [Only IN Hollywood] Pinoys Soliman Cruz, Lav Diaz and Matthew Libatique triumph in Venice)

LEAD ROLE. Soliman Cruz in Romania, where ‘To the North’ was filmed. Photo courtesy of deFilm

Soliman, and two other notable actors, Bartholome “Bart” Guingona and Noel Sto. Domingo, starring in a European film and playing seafarers – representing the hundreds of thousands of Pinoy sailors on ships out in the oceans around the world – speak volumes about the Filipino diaspora and our actors spreading their wings and finding recognition elsewhere.

In September, I wrote: “Soliman plays Joel quietly but effectively a simple man upon whom one life and his fellow Pinoy sailors’ jobs depend. Should Joel hide Dumitru (Niko Becker, also good) from the Taiwanese officers running the cargo ship, or else the young stowaway will be thrown overboard and die? If Joel hides Dumitru but is discovered by the officers, he and his compatriots’ jobs are over.”

“That is the suspenseful plot, and Soliman’s solid, man-of-few-words performance reflecting Joel’s dilemma fuels the thrilling and dangerous cat-and-mouse elements of To the North from start to finish.”

The film, an entry in Venice’s Orizzonti (Horizons) category, won Premio Bisanto D’Oro for Best Film from a group of Venice-based independent critics.

Praise for Soliman was exemplified by this verdict from The Moveable Fest’s Stephen Saito: “Cruz is a particularly gripping presence as Joel…”

Soliman also said: “I saw the film in Venice for the first time. Pag-upo ko sa theater, audience member ako. Nahiwalay ako sa actor. Nanood lang ako (I sat in the theater as an audience member, separated from my actor self. I simply watched).”

“The audience reaction when the film ended was overwhelming. When I was watching, tumutulo na ‘yung luha ko sa gilid (my tears were already starting to fall). When the audience started clapping, I remembered, actor pala ako dito, ako pala ang pinapalakpakan (I’m an actor, I’m the one they’re applauding)!”

Chai Fonacier herself probably did not dream of costarring with Eva Green and Mark Strong in a film directed by Lorcan Finnegan and shot mostly in Dublin, Ireland. (READ: [ONLY IN HOLLYWOOD] Dolly, Sol, and now Chai Fonacier – a great year for Pinoy actors in European cinema)

Chai Fonacier has been getting good reviews, with one critic hailing her as “terrific,” for her performance in ‘Nocebo.’ CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

The Cagayan de Oro-born and raised actress, who studied at UP Cebu and belonged to several bands, has a meaty role in Nocebo, a thriller that narrates the tale of a fashion designer (Eva) who is suffering from a mysterious ailment that stumps her doctors and frustrates her husband (Mark).

Things drastically change when a Filipino carer (Chai) suddenly appears at their doorstep. She practices folk healing to uncover a horrifying truth.

The Financial Times’ Leslie Felperin raved: “Somehow, it all feels connected to Diana (Chai Fonacier, terrific), a Filipino woman who shows up unexpectedly, and, like a malign Mary Poppins, announces that she’s the new housekeeper.”

Brian Lloyd of Entertainment.ie wrote: “It’s a credit to the makeup artists and the production design that Eva Green is, from scene to scene, made to look glamorous and beautiful in one and horrifically ill in the next. More than that, her physical performance matches this change. Her eyes look exhausted, but in another scene, she’s upright and dancing.”

“The source of all this is Filipino actor Chai Fonacier, who has this otherworldly calm about her that never seems to falter for a second – even when Mark Strong’s character looms over her in a tense moment. Fonacier’s progression through the story is fascinating, as the story dips back to her life in the Philippines before it catches up to the story’s present.”

RogertEbert.com’s Simon Abrams declared: “Green is typically commanding as Christine, but she’s usually overshadowed by Fonacier, whose measured performance is well-realized and deeply felt in ways that Green is never allowed to be, beyond over-edited fits of actorly desperation.”

Chai: “…And yes, the irony that we get a bit more recognition outside. I think it has a lot to do with the kind of celebrity culture that we have here. It’s a long discussion on, let’s say, colonialism.”

“For example, people’s preferences for more Caucasian-looking people or maybe more now, more East Asian-looking people because of the fame of K-pop, J-pop, and similar things. It’s saddening.”

“When I started thinking about this many years ago, it would make me angry. But as you grow older, you kind of understand better these issues and topics. And it is more saddening now than it is angering because it comes from a very pained history.”

“We have a huge collective pain about that. For so many centuries, we have been made to dislike ourselves so much so that it seeps into who we favor in terms of actors.”

“So, our history actually affects us personally, even in our work. And this is because as a people, we have a lot of healing to do.”

Stefanie Arianne gave a voice to and embodied the thousands of Filipinos working in Japan in her caregiver character, Maria, in Plan 75. (READ: [Only IN Hollywood] Film with ‘strong Filipino character’ competes in Cannes)

PREMIERE. Stefanie Arianne at the premiere of ‘Plan 75’ in Cannes. Photo by Ruben V. Nepales

The film imagines a future when Japan enforces a government program called Plan 75, which encourages its elderly folks to be euthanized to remedy an aged society.

Writer-director Chie Hayakawa explained to me why she created Stefanie’s caregiver part: “The Philippines is one of the biggest countries to provide caregivers to Japan. The reason why I chose a Filipino caregiver is because I have an impression that Filipino people have strong family and community bonds that we Japanese are losing.”

“They have a spirit of helping each other that may be rooted in their religion or cultural background. I feel that they have a national characteristic of affection and philanthropy.”

The film, which premiered in Cannes like Triangle of Sadness, won the Golden Camera – Special Mention prize.

Stefanie: “My journey as an actress in Tokyo consists of a lot of rejection. I’m Japanese-Filipino. I usually don’t fit the certain beauty standards casting is usually looking for.”

“There were times that I’ve almost given up but I always found that tiny spark of hope in me. This has always been my dream as far as I can remember.”

Kudos to the women at TBA Studios, Daphne Chiu and Cindy Sison, for making it possible for Triangle of SadnessNocebo (January 18), and Plan 75 to be seen by Filipinos in local theaters.

And props to another Filipina, Bianca Balbuena-Liew, who has a part, in one way or another in Triangle of Sadness (she and Jake Macapagal helped in Dolly’s casting), as well as Nocebo and Lav Diaz’s When the Waves are Gone (Kapag Wala Nang Mga Alon) (she and husband Bradley Liew co-produced the latter two films).

FILMMAKER. Lav Diaz made waves in 2022 with ‘When the Waves are Gone,’ which debuted in Venice and clinched a special jury award in the International Film Festival of India. Photo by Ruben V. Nepales

Bianca and Bradley also co-produced Kenneth Dagatan’s In My Mother’s Skin, the only non-English language selection in the 2023 Sundance Film Festival’s Midnight section.

Alemberg Ang and Wilfredo Manalang (aka Will Fredo) co-produced Plan 75 and are behind other international co-productions, so props to these Pinoys who are steering projects that ensure representation, whether in front or behind the camera.

This year, in July, marked the release of the first-ever major Hollywood studio revolving around a Pinoy family. For me, witnessing Easter Sunday being screened for the first time before a theater full of cheering Filipinos and Asians right in the heart of Hollywood was historic.

It took the talent and popularity of Jo Koy and the clout of Steven Spielberg to finally come up with a big studio (Universal) film about us. (READ: [Only IN Hollywood] Filipinos in Hollywood rise at last on Early Sunday)

The cast, led by Jo Koy himself, includes Lydia Gaston, Tia Carrere, Melody Butiu, Rodney To, Joey Guila, Eugene Cordero, Elena Juatco, Lou Diamond Phillips, Eva Noblezada, Brandon Wardell, Tiffany Haddish, Jay Chandrasekhar (who also directed), Asif Ali, Jimmy O. Yang, and Carly Pope.

Sadly, Easter Sunday also brought out the worst in some of our kababayans: the “crabbers” or folks who still have, in this day and age, the bad trait of crab mentality – pulling down anyone who achieves success.

That a movie like Easter Sunday finally got made but motivated some Filipinos to gleefully post anything negative about the film was lamentable and despicable.

Jo Koy: “We’re opening up that door and I want more to walk through and not just Filipinos. I want all of us to walk through now and all of us get a chance to be heard and be represented.”

And Jo Koy’s reply, when I thanked him for making Easter Sunday and what it represents: “Aw, man, this is what it’s all about. I’m getting all emotional right now. I’m trying so hard not to cry. It’s like I’m crying to every other person but I’m holding it in because this is the reason why we did it.”

“This is what this movie’s all about…you get to see yourself on the screen…. And not only that, you get to share it with people who aren’t like you, who are going to identify and relate.”

Cinematographer Matthew “Matty” Libatique, a two-time Oscar nominee, had the rare distinction of having not one but two of his films bowing in the 79th Venice International Film Festival – Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale and Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling.

With his work that doesn’t call attention to itself – the best compliment to a director of photography – Matthew filmed both movie’s fine performances, especially Brendan Fraser’s towering work in The Whale.

After his hectic Venice schedule, Matthew went straight back to work to reunite with his A Star is Born director, Bradley Cooper, on Maestro, a biographical drama on the relationship of Leonard (played by Bradley) and Felicia (Carey Mulligan).

Matthew: “I would certainly like to collaborate with them (Filipino directors). I’d like to do a film made by a Filipino filmmaker.”

Speaking of Pinoy directors, they continued to break ground. Martika Ramirez Escobar started 2022 with a splash when her feature directing debut, Leonor Will Never Die, won the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award.

The film received good reviews and went on to other festivals, including the Toronto International Film Festival where Martika got the Amplify Voices Award.

Leonor will indeed never die as Martika’s audacious meta-comedy, led by a terrific Sheila Francisco, competes against Austria’s Corsage, Pakistan’s Joyland, Cambodia’s Return to Seoul, and France’s Saint Omer for the Film Independent Spirit Awards’ Best International Film prize in March 2023.

Januel Mercado’s co-directing debut, DreamWorks’ Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, earned a Best Motion Picture – Animation nomination at the Golden Globes, to be handed out on January 10. It’s an auspicious start for Januel who previously worked with director Joel Crawford in The Croods: A New Age as head of story.

After her string of acclaimed indie films, Isabel Sandoval made her TV directing debut. She helmed the crucial penultimate episode of the miniseries Under the Banner of Heaven. Both Andrew Garfield (Best Actor) and Daisy Edgar-Jones (Best Supporting Actress) got nominated in the Golden Globes’ performance categories for limited series, anthology series, or a motion picture made for television.

TV DIRECTING DEBUT. After her string of acclaimed indie films, Isabel Sandoval made her TV directing debut by helming the crucial penultimate episode of ‘Under the Banner of Heaven.’ Contributed photo

Isabel also directed two episodes of the new TV series Tell Me Lies.

Marie Jamora, who began as a writer on Eat Bulaga, the Philippines’ longest-running noontime TV show, is one of the busiest directors in American television. This year, she directed Miranda Kwok’s The Cleaning Lady (two episodes of this series top-billed by Asian actors, including Filipino American Martha Millan), as well as The ResidentAll Rise, and Good Sam (one episode each).

DIRECTOR. Marie Jamora on the set of ‘The Cleaning Lady.’ Photo by Melissa Carter

Lav Diaz, highly respected in the international film community as the Philippines’ uncompromising auteur, made waves this year with When the Waves are Gone, which debuted in Venice and clinched a special jury award in the International Film Festival of India.

Cinephiles await the release – finally – of Henrico’s Farm, which reunites Lav with Charo Santos-Concio, the lead of his Venice Golden Lion winner, The Woman Who Left (Ang Babaeng Humayo), Shaina Magdayao, Angeli Bayani, and Hazel Orencio.

Erik Matti, whose On the Job 2: The Missing 8, is the Philippines’ entry to the Oscars’ international feature race, is working on an untitled prequel with a script written again by his wife, Michiko Yamamoto, and starring Jericho Rosales and Ryan Agoncillo.

PRODUCER AND FILMMAKER. Dean Devlin and Erik Matti. Photo by Ruben V. Nepales

In his first major film role in Jordan Peele’s hit, Nope, Brandon Perea had very few co-stars, but what a fine ensemble: Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, and Steven Yeun. As Angel Torres, an electronics store tech guy, Brandon held his own.

Several articles, even one in The New York Times, highlighted a video of how Jordan broke the news to Brandon that he got the Nope part and played up how the filmmaker, so impressed with the actor, completely rewrote the script for him.

The Filipino Puerto Rican, who played Alfonso Sosa in the series The OA, is hailed as one of 2022’s breakout stars.

The Daily Beast’s Fletcher Peters wrote: “Brandon Perea quickly became one of our favorite new performances of the year, thanks to his fantastic comedic timing in Nope, Jordan Peele’s summer blockbuster. Perea starred as Angel, a Fry’s employee who helps the Haywoods (Daniel and Keke) install a slew of cameras to stalk an alien creature. Playing for laughs off of the iconic Keke Palmer, Perea proved he’s a legend in the making. Five stars, Angel, five stars.”

Here’s hoping that Brandon gets a certain MCU role. Claim it, Brandon.

Brandon: “…Culturally, ethnic background, it’s tough to get those types of roles, especially for Filipinos. We’re not really seen in Hollywood. So, I’m so glad that we’re now getting more opportunities and it’s long overdue. I hope that I can be someone to help guide it, to get more opportunities for Filipino actors.”

MILESTONE. On acting with Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer in ‘Nope,’ Brandon Perea says: ‘It was far bigger than what I could ever imagine. I grew up watching Keke Palmer on the kid shows that she was doing back in the day. I grew up watching Daniel Kaluuya on ‘Skins’ when he was a teenager writing the show and that was so inspiring for me.’ Photo from Universal Pictures

Together, actress Sumalee Montano and producer Dean Devlin blazed a trail when they made The Deal, a sci-fi/thriller movie now streaming on The Roku Channel. (READ: [Only in HOLLYWOOD] This actress’ Filipina mom inspires Hollywood sci-fi film)

Sumalee is absorbing in the lead role, Tala Bayani, a single Filipina mom in a future where a pandemic has severely impacted the earth, with resources barely enough to support the population. Orsi Nagypal wrote the film, which also stars Lisa Brenner, Emma Fischer, and Alastair Mackenzie.

The actress is the executive producer of Nanny and Aftershock, which bagged the 2022 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize and US Documentary Special Jury Award, respectively. Nanny is now streaming on Prime Video.

Sumalee: “The mainstream sci-fi and American dystopian films are notorious for their lack of diversity. So, for me, it was very important to disrupt that and to center us. To center us as every people, in a way that every parent can associate and relate to Tala’s struggle, to her love and her determination to keep her child safe.”

TRAILBLAZER. Sumalee Montano, actress and producer. Photo by Ruben V. Nepales

“The more we see us in these roles, the more empathy we can build for our communities through audiences seeing us in these lead roles. And hopefully, that gives people permission to advocate for our communities in real life. So, it’s very important.”

Dean, whose producing credits include blockbusters, is pioneering with his series, Almost Paradise, now filming its second season in Cebu. He proudly cited that Almost Paradise is the first western scripted series to ever be done in the Philippines and that the show, starring Christian Kane and Filipino actors, has now sold all over the world.

I close this year-ending recap with a fitting quote from Dean on Dolly, Soliman, and Chai making breakthrough performances in Pinoy roles in European films: “I think for the longest time, Filipinos were forced to play other races because nobody wrote for Filipinos, right? Or didn’t think about Filipinos. We’re seeing now the crack in the glass suit and opportunities start to evolve.”

“They say that luck is when preparation meets luck, that’s when things happen. This window of openness to seeing Filipino actors is happening just at the moment that the Filipino talent has reached such an enormous level. We’re going to see more of that.”

I say amen to that! – Rappler.com 

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Ruben V. Nepales

Based in Los Angeles, Ruben V. Nepales is an award-winning journalist whose honors include prizes from the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards, a US-wide competition, and the Southern California Journalism Awards, presented by the Los Angeles Press Club.