Emir: An Original Non-Spoilerish Review
The idea for Emir was supposedly from outgoing president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. She got the idea when she visited an Arab nation and the son of the ruling family surprised her when he spoke fluent Tagalog. She handed over the idea to the Film Development council of the Philippines with the intention of Emir becoming a tribute to herself in cinematic form but I am delighted to say that as an advert for Gloria Arroyo, it fails miserably - but only as an advert for her. With that out of the way, Emir can now stand on it's own.
The French and her Allies
Emir is populated by a cast of bonafide singers and leading the charge is Frencheska Farr, all seventeen years of her. Do note her age as often in the cinema, you will hear the mutter of "she's only seventeen?" or "seventeen lang yan?", soon followed by "ang galing naman niya!". The French plays the lead role of Amelia and while she may seem to have the fewest lines in any scene she's in, she is in almost every scene. The original choice for the role was supposedly Lea Salonga, but for one reason or another they got Frencheska Farr and they made a good choice. As good as Lea Salonga is, I can't imagine anybody else giving life to Amelia other than Frencheska Farr. This is her role because she made it hers. She acts well beyond her age and even if she never wins an award, a movie house of people declaring "ang galing niya" should be more than enough.
Another exemplary singer in the cast is Dulce, a name more familiar to older members of the audience. She only appears in half of the film but represents far more than just a part antagonist and part protagonist. She also plays the representative of the older model against Amelia, the new model in more ways than one. She hasn't lost any of her skills over the years but sadly the songs don't take advantage of her for the most part. When they do however, it's something to tell the grandkids about. It was great seeing Dulce sing again. Hers is a name that deserves to grace a stage once more instead of just the archives of a musical historian. She belongs onstage and in front of the camera, not hidden in a museum somewhere. She is the second example of perfect casting in Emir. She even wears the Dracula hairstyle well. I wonder if they intended to make her rolls look like horns or it just turned out that way?
A third prominent presence in the film is outstanding not for her singing but for her acting and in fact her entire physical performance. Julia Clarete is the energizer bunny of energy in her portrayal here. During any number while everybody moves this way or squats that way, she always gives it just that little bit much more effort and goes just a little bit further. It's most apparent in numbers where she is with several other actors doing similar steps. Hers is also the most dramatically significant in terms of setup for the story among the supporting cast - or she made it look that way by being so good. In a film where everything is sung to you, she tells you what's happening without a single word. Purely by action, you know what's happening, what happened and what's going on. She is the best dramatic actor among all the singers. That's saying a lot considering the quality of performance given by all the Filipinos. The foreign ones however left a bit to be desired. They were quite stiff and cold with the sole exception of the lady of the house who is an impossibly beautiful woman that could probably get all her lines wrong and we'd be fine with it just because she looks so damn good. Perhaps it was the language barrier but while the foreign actors struggled with what is probably a foreign tongue to them, the lady of the house glides with it and her accent gives her an exotic quality.
Much praise has been lofted upon the shoulders of the songwriters and they deserve it. It seamlessly flows from one song to the next and perhaps a bit too seamlessly. There are no catchy poptunes here and that's one of it's shortcomings. In modern pop musicals, there is That Song that the second you hear it, images of the play are conjured up in your head. Music of The Night and All I Ask of You from Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of The Opera; Mister Mistoffeles from Cats; The Heat is on in Saigon from Miss Saigon; Summer Nights from Grease; Seasons of Love from Rent, these are all songs that are identified with the musical. We will remember the story of Amelia but it would've been great if we remembered one of her songs as well - something we can request at videoke and belt out shamelessly. I do have one candidate for this and it's the song between Frencheska Farr and Dulce. It's significant for the depth of interpretation it affords.
Frencheska Farr is a reality show winner, a singer made of text votes and television. Dulce is of a previous generation of singer, made of radio airplay and vinyl records. In one very meaningful scene, the two of them square off in what is supposed to be a dramatic exchange but can easily be seen as a duel between the old and the new. This is where the best musical performances of both singers are displayed. It's a clash of the new world and the old and it plays to the story perfectly with both singers doing their generations proud. Dulce here is in all her musical glory and the number is genuinely spine-tingling as you realise what you are witnessing before you. Frencheska Farr is no slouch either. Reality show winners are supposed to be just the most popular not necessarily the most talented, but here she shows off just how much she deserved to win that competition. This scene brushed with perfection.
Generally, all the songs seemed too similar to each other in Emir. With a few exceptions such as the one above and a few others, the songs would far too often meld into on another for extended periods. It is a possible flaw but as a dramatic device, it serves it's purpose well. The music is more than adequate then as every song fits. It uses it's musical advantage well because with a normal narrative, the events have to be displayed to be effective instead of narrated by some disembodied offscreen voice. In Emir, they can sing to you exactly what's going on without disrespecting your intelligence. Emir has good music that may be indistinguishable for the most part but also because of this, you always know exactly where you are in the film. The scorer also made great use of middle eastern musical influence and it was a perfect soundtrack to the incredible visuals of their location.
Behind The Camera
Neil Daza has a very well deserved reputation of being very ingenious and resourceful. He can literally be sent to the middle of nowhere in a foreign country with no lighting equipment in the darkness of night for an outdoor shot and find a way to light that scene with just what he finds at the location. He can even tell you stories of when that happened. Neil Daza was the perfect choice for Cinematographer for Emir and instead of being armed with essentially his own two hands, Emir's budget allowed him the very latest in technology including the Red One camera. One thing he seemed to have a problem with this time however was too much lighting. The stone walls of the palace of the Emir bounce light off themselves with beautiful radiance but when captured on camera, it looks almost too brightly lit in some places but with none of the delightful play of shadows in others. He does enter the playground of shadows in a latter scene but it was far too short and perhaps because of the nature of the shot couldn't be optimised. He is the maestro and every outdoor shot in daytime was breathtaking with the middle eastern locations lending themselves to be shot on camera like a movie star. That was Neil at his best.
Another marked achievement behind the camera is in the costume department. The story of Amelia spans many years and they have but one seventeen year old to play the same character for all of them. Just by changing her hairstyle and her clothing, they aged her so well that there was little need for makeup or prosthetics. The Arab costumes of course were just so lavish, even the casual clothing looked great.
This is the first Chito Roño film I've seen since Sukob. While Sukob did bear the convention (or weight) of little girl with bad hair serving as source of horror in a horror flick, it was pretty well made and showed his capabilities well as a director. He also made Caregiver which is another film about OCW's and it might've been the one that landed him the job for Emir. In Emir he seems to have chosen to give the film the quality of a filmed stage musical instead of the original movie musical it is and it's led to some oddities. It made him allergic to the close-up for one thing so a lot of the grander shots lose a great deal of their grandeur. There is one huge song and dance number in particular at the start of the film where it looks as if he used the fewest shots possible from no closer than medium range, something that happens a lot if not exclusively in a filmed stage musical. Even the street where it's performed in is only viewed from one end looking at the other. Given that this stage happens to be pretty huge, it still looks like a filmed stage musical. It's a quality of the film that acts like an imperfection and it's pretty easy to overlook it and lift it's veil to get at the film's goodies.
Two aspects of Emir that are harder to overlook however are the storytelling and the editing, especially at the beginning. Emir clocks in at well over two hours but even at that length of film, it feels like a lot of it was lopped off in the name of time considerations by editor Jerrold Tarrog and the story as well as storytelling suffers. The beginning felt disjointed and the beginning minutes of a film are crucial for an audience to remain interested. after that initial hurdle is leapt over, it's smoother sailing. It does suffer a bit from the director's unfamiliarity with directing a musical as occasionally it felt like i was watching one music video after another instead of one part of the story to the next one. The pacing and occasional disjointed feel hobble it but i suspect that out there somewhere is a cut of this film that truly shows it in all it's brilliance and that's the cut we all deserve to see. Bring a seat donut however because that one will likely flirt with 3 hours length or even more. One advantage of the pacing was that the 135 minutes whizzed past so any longer version might not seem all that long.
The story itself is an earnest one written by Chito S. Roño and Jerry Gracio (with the screenplay written by Jerry Gracio). It's a love story, but not a romance between Amelia and her ward. It's also filled with a lot of scenes that could've been lopped off without harming the love story at all because they were entirely self-contained and probably even self-serving such as the biyahe scene and the rat-hunting. Because of so many of these scenes and their length, the central love story tends to be lost. The script just had too many things it wanted to say and they got in the way. A lot of these scenes were a part of the idea of Emir showing what it's like for OCW's before they leave and then abroad so they simply had to be included and that's understandable, I can only imagine what scenes were cut in the name of length if those were left in. Once the sources of these distractions are gone, the relationship is explored but sadly not given enough time to be given the depth it deserves. So now there are probably TWO cuts of this film out there somewhere that show this film in all it's brilliance. One is the diamond encrusted tiara with all the bling that bedazzles you with glimmer, the other is the solitaire diamond ring that draws all your focus and attention onto that one precious gem.
And the Next Big Star Is.....
As a totally unrelated aside, Frencheska Farr is still seventeen but has posed for a poster that seems to have drawn inspiration from a 14 year old Brooke Shields in her iconic Calvin Klein advert from the 80's. The French does Brooke Shields proud in my opinion and it will be interesting what the future holds for this talent who thankfully looks very much like a Pinay and not half something else, even if her name does. Dulce has shown that age didn't diminish her abilities one iota. She still has every right to sing on a stage alongside and in fact in a position of respect above today's singers. Chito Roño now has familiarity with the musical so any future project he has with a song and dance will be something to look forward to.
The filmmakers entrusted with this film were faced with the daunting task of creating a multi-million dollar film with a budget of 50 million pesos - some accounts place it upwards of 70m. Even if the budget touched the century, it would still not be enough to fulfill the ambitious vision but they did well enough and beyond to realise most of that vision. Emir is an impressive and valiant effort. Despite it's shortcomings, this is a film worth watching and enjoying. "There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion" as Francis Bacon said. I suspect Emir is intended to be our Oscar contender this year as well so let's hope for the best as it gathers momentum in our cinemas. Emir is a film that deserves our support.