** WARNING: Minor spoilers below **
“Loosely inspired by a retelling of a tragic story.”
These are the words which open director Ysabelle Peach Caparas' Jacqueline Comes Home (The Chiong Story).
Ironically, just minutes before the lights went dim, the host of this premiere screening touted how it was their turn to share their side of the story, acknowledging the 2011 documentary Give Up Tomorrow.
“Loosely inspired” and “their side” — the short amount of time between these lines encompass the central hypocrisy of Jacqueline Comes Home. It is a film that wants to have its cake and eat it.
On one end it wants to scream "this is what really happened!" while also not obliging itself to do so through a disclaimer mostly used to stave off potential libel suits.
Isn’t that convenient?
Fast and loose with the facts
For a case as controversial and polarizing as the 1997 rape and murder of Marijoy and Jacqueline Chiong, it is not unexpected for movies coming from opposing sides to posit conflicting accounts. (These accounts and how they tie back to a conspiracy involving the Philippine justice system are what make the case the talk of the town even decades after.)
A certain level of bias is understood as every filmmaker has an agenda.
In biopics, bias dictates which facts will be presented and omitted, as well as what liberties are to be made. (Marty Syjuco and Michael Collins, the filmmakers behind Give Up Tomorrow, wear their biases on their sleeves by openly declaring Syjuco’s familial connection to the prime suspect, Paco Larrañaga.)
Jacqueline Comes Home (even with marketing clearly depicting the case from the Chiongs’ POV), in a bizarre move, went on interviews the week of its premiere preemptively defending itself as unbiased, concerned with family drama, not "justice” (more on this later).
Doing so all the more highlighted the movie’s propensity to toy around with documented facts — facts which were never supposed to be contestable in the first place.
Cases in point: 1) Davidson’s Rusia’s testimony and 2) The Chiongs’ reception of the guilty verdict.
Davidson Rusia, suspect turned state witness, confessed to the crime 10 months after the arrest of Larrañaga and six other accused (Josman Aznar, Rowen Adlawan, Alberto Cao, Ariel Balanasag, James Anthony Uy, and James Andrew Uy).
His testimony says that he was part of Larrañaga’s gang and that they all took part in the kidnapping, gang-rape, and murder of the Chiong sisters. Take note, Rusia admitted to raping Jacqueline, even detailing how it was James Andrew who followed after he was done.
In Jacqueline Comes Home, Rusia (or as the movie billed him, “Nervous Boy”) was never complicit to the crime. Instead, he winced all night, went outside the scene of the crime, and continuously verged on vomiting.
Also well-documented is how Thelma Chiong and her sister Cheryl Jimenea bawled and screamed “We want death” and “Death to Rowan, Paco, and Josman!” when the Chiong 7 were sentenced to two counts of life imprisonment.
But in the movie, Thelma Chiong (Alma Moreno), upon the reading of the verdict quietly bowed her head and assumably said a prayer, thanking God under her breath.
It would be easy to dismiss criticisms with Jacqueline Comes Home as merely reactionary to the flocks rallying behind Give Up Tomorrow. But even without the documentary’s existence, Jacqueline Come Home injects much deceit for one to question its intentions.
And when there is an effort to disinform for sympathy, won’t that constitute any material as propaganda?
Propaganda over artistic retelling
Critic Oggs Cruz put it best when he said in his review, “The film is reprehensible not because it is biased but because it is irresponsible in pushing for its biases.”
Even with a disclaimer signifying a "loose adaptation,” knowledge that a film is based on a true story directs audiences to think that majority of a movie is factual.
Yes, movies are not history books and vice versa. Directors add dialogue, omit scenes, streamline and change a few characters. However, the film should still be responsible enough to evoke the same ideas and emotions as close to the “true story” as possible. Especially if it becomes viewers’ only encounter with the actual events. (The movie does use the Chiongs’ real names and don’t tell me Ysabelle Peach and crew foresaw the widespread distribution of Give Up Tomorrow.)
Jacqueline Comes Home starts with a checklist of what audience perceptions it must influence and attempts to do so in the most ham-fisted way possible. It commits to classic propagandist techniques by creating an extreme dichotomy: demonized enemies, God on the side of the protagonists (yes, literally).
By doing so, the film reveals its toxic core as it willingly alters history in pursuit of severely morally polarizing its characters. Most irresponsible is how goes on to create another victim who the Chiong 7 stand-ins rape and, presumably, murder days before the sisters.
A plain bad film
If there’s any truth behind divine justice, one could believe it played a role in the quality of Caparas and crew’s final output.
Anointing itself as a family drama not centered on justice’s proceedings may have worked in theory; using historical events merely as a framing device has been done before. This year’s The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story only features the titular crime as a prelude to a tale of 90’s American homophobia.
Jacqueline Comes Home is an entirely different beast. By showcasing the depravity of the alleged perpetrators for a huge chunk of the film, it is jarringly perplexing to claim that the film doesn’t seek to incriminate anyone.
Lack of narrative flow, inexplicable non-linearity, and the tendency to move into laughable PSA territory (random law students used as audience avatars question legal loopholes and are told to trust the justice system – the only thing lacking is everyone looking into the camera and winking) are the least of this film’s faults.
Jacqueline Comes Home's only redeeming quality is that it's laughably horrible, but even making it a camp comedy would be an injustice to the actual victims of this case.
Jacqueline Comes Home is toxic viewing fitting for this post-truth era.
Like most questionable material today, it banks on emotions rather than facts; the only reason it draws viewers: sensationalization. Ask yourself, if this film (or any other movie, actually) wasn’t “based on a true story,” would it even warrant a viewing? — Rappler.com