Festivals, Reviews

Cinemalaya 2019: ‘F#*@BOIS’ – The Politics of Appearances

After 2013’s Quick Change and 2016’s Pamilya Ordinaryo, Eduardo Roy, Jr. returns to Cinemalaya with F#*@BOIS, a provocative crime thriller about bikini pageant contestants Ace (Royce Cabrera) and Miko (Kokoy De Santos) who also sideline as male escorts to their rich, closeted gay patron Mayor Fernan (Ricky Davao). The film, for which Roy won as Cinemalaya 2019 Best Director, is an important reminder that appearances are never what they seem and that a better understanding of society entails looking beyond them. 

The film understands the importance of appearances. If you’re a bikini pageant contestant who also strives to be an actor, you need to maintain an image that suits a celebrity-in-the-making. If you’re a politician from a prominent political clan, you need to maintain a clean public persona that conforms to what the general voting populace deems acceptable. Appearances, in a society addicted with the superficial, are all that matter. This idea is best exemplified by the film’s constant use of the Facebook live/story elements, the titillating male bodies shown to the audience, the neon-lit Club Mankind that the film spends almost its entire first act into, and a quick mention of Bong Revilla’s papogi antics in the recent midterm elections. Roy, at least for the first half of the narrative, drowns the audience into the spectacle of appearances, in effect putting them in the shoes of the spectators within the film’s universe. 

Eventually, however, the film delves into its more unpleasant bits, the spectacle of appearances beginning to wear out. It moves from an urban to a rural setting, the gradual increase in seclusion and privacy removing the need for a performative identity. Along with this, the power relations between the escorts and Mayor Fernan slowly unravel, revealing an entanglement in a situation that could endanger the former’s plans in life. At this point, the viewers are presented with the unfiltered view of the economic and political structures that shape the spectacles, how disgusting they are, and how they are not hinged to a single person but is rather the effect of a systemic problem.

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F#*@BOIS’s effectiveness can be attributed mostly to Roy’s deft direction. He has an absolute command of every frame, subtly bringing out the subliminal messages of the film without breaking the audience’s immersive experience. Given the film’s subject matter, it would have been easy to cross the line between meta/satire and exploitation but Roy makes sure not fall into the same things that he critiques (well, maybe save for that blatant product placement at the start of the film). Additionally, Carlo Manatad’s tight editing heightens the film’s thrilling aspects, capable of creatively shifting the spatial and temporal elements of the narrative. Newcomers Kokoy De Santos and Royce Cabrera deliver memorable performances, but it is Ricky Davao who really steals the show. He has this subtle commanding aura of a politician that is expertly balanced with the vulnerability of a closeted gay man. Davao proves that he is one of the most versatile veteran actors of our time, his portrayal both perfectly calculated and raw at the same time. 

As with Roy’s previous features, there’s a great sense of being lost as the film ended, but in F#@*BOIS it is even more pronounced. A huge wave of hopelessness engulfs the protagonists, their dreams shattered in one unfortunate night. There simply seems to be no escape from the mess they have gotten themselves into. Roy gives the audience the creative faculties to imagine what would happen to Ace and Miko, but the ending only feels abrupt given the protagonists’ inevitably dark fate. Nevertheless, F#@*BOIS still succeeds to be a highly exhilarating thriller and a clever deconstruction of the spectacles surrounding queerness and politics, stripping away a pleasant façade to reveal the dirty secrets hidden underneath.

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