The buzz on ‘Kung Fu Divas’ director Onat Diaz

‘The Buzz’ director Onat Diaz is himself a buzz topic of late, thanks to his maiden movie

BONGGA KAYO, ’DAY. Writer-director Onat Diaz flanked by his peacock-haired ‘Kung Fu Divas’ lead stars Marian Rivera and Ai Ai De Las Alas. Photo: Raymund Isaac

MANILA, Philippines – A curiosity among Philippine cinemas mainstream offerings this year is “Kung Fu Divas,” an action-comedy-fantasy romp from Star Cinema and the maiden motion picture of scriptwriter-filmmaker Jonathan “Onat” Diaz, heretofore the director of commercials and the talk show “The Buzz.”

The flick is a “maiden” movie in more than one sense: not only is it the 43-year-old Diaz’s first big-screen output, it is also fronted by a pair of actresses, Ai Ai De Las Alas and Marian Rivera. The two ladies portray beauty-pageant rivals turned unlikely kung fu-skilled partners, and this first-time casting of De Las Alas the comedienne with Rivera, often cast in dramas and love stories, incidentally reflects an unlikely pairing of sorts, given that Ai Ai is a “kapamilya” under ABS-CBN while Rivera is a “kapuso” under GMA.

“Kung Fu Divas,” a collaborative production between Star Cinema, Reality Entertainment, and Diaz’s The O & Co. Picture Factory Inc., also takes favorable advantage of modern-day filmmaking’s capacities, shot as it was with digital cameras and utilizing as it does a host of computer-generated special effects. The visuals, however, prove to be a rich icing to the multilayered cake that is the film’s narrative, which is by turns a near-satirical take on beauty-contest mania; a comedy whose humor stems from smart-alecky sendups, sight gags, and Pinoy slices of life; and a busy action caper reminiscent of a few recent celluloid fare from elsewhere.

GIRL FIGHT. Marian and Ai Ai in kung fu diva mode and garb. Movie screen grabs by Onat Diaz

All of this stemmed from the mind of Quezon City-born Diaz, who had earned a communication-arts degree from Maryknoll (now Miriam) College before going into advertising “by accident,” he said.

“Even before I graduated, I got an offer to work at McCann-Erickson, [there becoming] an agency producer for close to 5 years,” the director said in an interview with Rappler. While at that agency, Diaz got the chance to direct his first TV commercial, which eventually motivated him to leave the outfit to become a full-time TVC helmer. Along the way, he got hired to direct the ABS-CBN gossip/talk show “The Buzz,” which he has been handling since 2005.

“I’ve always wanted to get into feature film production,” said Diaz, who first conceived “Kung Fu Divas” a good 9 years ago. “My most immediate influence for ‘Divas’ was ‘Kung Fu Hustle,’” he said, referring to the great Stephen Chow’s 2004 film that is itself an effects-heavy action-fantasy. “I felt that that entire film was one big ‘kabaklaan’ – and I mean that in a good way – [given] its endearing campiness, kitsch, visual language, and narrative. So I endeavored to create my own story and inject it with my own brand of humor and whimsy.”

Making his movie, however, had been a long journey “because we needed resources, both financial and technological, that weren’t available yet then,” Diaz said. Moreover, “I got too engrossed and distracted with my advertising work that I ended up pushing aside my first love, filmmaking. It took a lot of self-control, determination, and sacrifice [before I] finally told myself that the only way to do it was to drop everything else and just do it.” And so Diaz “seriously got into the pre-production and eventual production stages of ‘Divas’ [in 2012, but] as soon as the dust settles, I’ll probably go back to my advertising work.”

THREE’S COMPANY. Edward Mendez, flanked by Ai Ai and Marian, rounds out ‘Kung Fu Divas' triumvirate.

“Kung Fu Divas” is an unabashedly mainstream movie, so it’s interesting to note that Diaz’s favorite films are not exactly big box-office draws. “My ultimate favorite foreign film is Terry Gilliam’s ‘Brazil,’ though I’m also a big Hitchcock fan. [And] I’m a big fan of Mike De Leon. ‘Kakabakaba Ka Ba?‘ and ‘Kisapmata‘ are all-time favorites.

“I do appreciate all genres and a more recent favorite is Baz Luhrman’s ‘Moulin Rouge.’ Lately, though, I have gotten cynical and grown distasteful of very obvious ‘art films.’ In general, I like fanciful movies that are elaborate in terms of both production values and vision.”

“Kung Fu Divas” itself boasts of many production values as well as a vision, complemented in part by the movie’s lush locales, which stood for the film’s fictitious Isla Marikit. “I originally wanted to shoot in Batanes, since it’s the nearest Philippine island to China,” Diaz said, referring to the latter country in line with what chiefly stresses “Divas’” kung fu quotient. “I also wanted the isla to look exotic, mysterious, and unfamiliar enough to the audience so it would seem to the audience as a place where strange, magical things can happen. Scheduling considerations, however, made us end up with the isla as a composite of Mariveles, Anilao, Caliraya, Pakil, Balara, and Cainta.”

The movie also bursts with digital clarity, and many scenes have digital embellishments, replete with wirework. “All of the China sequences were shot against a green screen. It had to be that way because my vision of the mystical Chinese island was very precise and had the scale and grandeur not readily available for practical shooting.” And in certain scenes, “the mountains, the sky, and the seas were virtual sets.”

A SIGHT TO BEHOLD. ‘Kung Fu Divas’ depicts a ‘strange, magical’ place as director Onat Diaz conceived it, such as this scene featuring Mendez and De Las Alas

“Kung Fu Divas,” is likewise rich in its bevy of actors, and the enlisting of De Las Alas and Rivera seems such a coup, one would think the movie’s casting came before its plotting. “The concept did come first before the cast,” Diaz says. “It just so happened that Ai Ai and Marian fit the lead characters perfectly. I offered it to them separately and I was so glad that they instantly fell in love with it the moment I pitched it to them.”

Much of “Divas” involves a 3rd cast member: the visibly bemuscled newcomer Edward Mendez, who essays the film’s trainer bit and a surprise role halfway through. “Edward is the product of a long and extensive casting search,” Diaz said. “He’s a pure Pinoy who grew up in the States but [despite his contrived accent in ‘Divas’] speaks perfect Tagalog. He fit the part of having a ‘makalaglag-panty physique.” Diaz was also referring to a major sight gag in the movie. “I had conceived Edward’s role as one who is sensual yet has a boyish charm, parang a young boy trapped in a hunk’s body.”

The all-star cast includes Roderick Paulate, Nova Villa, Roy Alvarez, German Moreno, Dexter Doria, and beauty queens Gloria Diaz, Precious Lara Quigaman, and Bianca Manalo. “I got to handpick the cast members,” said Diaz. “Kuya Dick [Paulate] was particularly in my head even while I was writing the script.”

As scripted and realized by Diaz, “Kung Fu Divas” is a proverbial multitasker, genre-wise. It is primarily a comedy with golden moments of dialogue, such as when a nondescript, improbable beauty-pageant entrant snaps, “Ay, may sinaing pa pala ako,” before walking out on the competition, or when De Las Alas is advised by Manalo, as one of her beauty-titlist sisters, to always answer a question starting with “Thank you for that wonderful question.”

LOOK MA, NO WIRES. Digitally erased wirework abounds in Kung Fu Divas

Still, “Kung Fu Divas” is a multi-genre fiesta. “The action, comedy and adventure part have always been in the mix since conceptualization,” said the filmmaker. “The drama aspects naturally sneaked into the script and, surprisingly, for some viewers, the drama was the one that struck them the most. I guess that speaks a lot about our sentimentality and penchant for drama as a people.”

The ongoing screening began on October 2. For a while, the buzz was that its opening date would be moved to December 25. Yet, “‘Kung Fu Divas’ was never really considered for the 2013 Metro Manila Film Festival,” Diaz said, “because we did not submit it to the MMFF screening committee. We’ve always planned on an October opening, so all those MMFF talks were just rumors. We couldn’t enter it in the filmfest, anyway, due to the contractual limitations of our stars.”

Amid its array of distinctive features, what stands out plot-wise in “Kung Fu Divas” is the concept of bitter, rival divas becoming cooperative partners. Might this be autobiographical on Diaz’s part? “Actually, I have no bitter enemies,” he said laughing. “I’ve been very peace-loving. If you’ll examine closely, though, apart from the digs on our obsession with physical beauty and the pressure society puts on women in general, ‘Kung Fu Divas’ is one long rant about my personal midlife crisis. In about 25 years, I’ll probably decode the movie and unearth the real thoughts that brought about some of its buried concepts and sub-concepts.”

What Diaz is more certain of is that “All I really set out to do was to come up with a never-before-tried concept that would be entertaining, fun to watch.” Based on viewers’ feedback, “It seems like we’ve accomplished a certain measure of success [with that goal] and we’re quite pleased with that.”

So what’s next for the man? Quick answer: not to repeat himself. “I’m developing several concepts now, though I haven’t zeroed in on which to pursue next. None of them is anywhere near the kind of movie ‘Kung Fu Divas’ is. One is a tragicomic study of a once-admired modern hero. Another is an overlapping, multi-generational love story.”

All told, what does Diaz – a non-diva who is “really content to be a faceless, behind-the-scenes guy” – hope to impart to “Kung Fu Divas” viewers? “[That] life is such a worthwhile journey, and all you really need to do to enjoy it is to take the ride.” Direk Onat, thank you for that wonderful answer. –

Here is the official trailer of ‘Kung Fu Divas’:

‘Kung Fu Divas,’ rated PG-13 by the MTRCB, is showing in theaters nationwide.