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Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay

Who on Earth is Lilia Cuntapay?

She’s possibly the most famous Filipino face you’ve never heard of. She’s a minor actress who has appeared in forty films and television series to date (plus a few that the Internet Movie Database might have missed). She’s one of the more outré characters I’ve met on the fringes of the Filipino movie industry—never got her name completely right, but never forgot her, either. And she’s the unlikely, bizarrely brave yet startlingly serene heroine of Antoinette Jadaone’s 2011 feature debut mockumentary Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay.

Jadaone probably takes off from the parlour game “Six Degrees of Separation from Kevin Bacon” invented in 1994 by three Albright College students, their model in turn possibly being the brilliant 1990 John Guare play of similar name (Bacon didn’t figure in it), the play in turn inspired by the true story of David Hampton (who convinced people that he was the son of Sidney Poitier), who in turn exploited—in all likeliness unknowingly—the idea first proposed by Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy in a collection of short stories in 1929, that everyone on Earth is separated by six degrees of relationships from each other.

Jadaone gives the concept (or parlour game if you like) at most a cursory nod; the film opens with the question “Do you know Lilia Cuntapay?” with most people answering in the negative, and traces a tortuous web of relational links (but are there any other kind?) from Cuntapay to Chuck Norris, Claire Danes, and (of course) Kevin Bacon; what this network has to do with Cuntapay herself other than to provide the intriguing title, one isn’t quite sure; perhaps it demonstrates the roots and cilia one develops spending so much time at the fringe of a community. She does enjoy a kind of fame all her own: everyone remembers her in the “Yaya” episode of Shake, Rattle, and Roll 3 (1991) as the toothless old hag with the endless fine white hair streaming up and out in every direction (no digital effects here; filmmakers Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes simply strapped her to an upside-down swivel chair and used a fan to blow her hair around). The film’s main premise goes something like this: after thirty years of near-obscurity in the film industry, better remembered for her many horror films than for her acting talent, Cuntapay has finally been nominated for an AFTAP Best Supporting Actress award (fictional) for her performance in a film titled Sanangdaan (fictional), and she’s all a-flutter trying to prepare friends, family and herself for her coming moment of glory.

Whether anything else in Cuntapay’s life is fictional or not, Jadaone never lets you definitively know. The visits to home, friends, and family seem real (to be fair they’re the easiest to stage and shoot), but her adventures on film sets—where she comes early, memorises all her lines, waits for hours to step in front of cameras only to be told (after half a day’s waiting) that she’s been rescheduled—feel scripted (putting dramatization issues aside, the latter scenes are actually dead accurate, as anyone who’s ever been involved in a film production knows). Jadaone muddies the waters further by introducing real people who know her (Kris Aquino, Dingdong Dantes, directors Reyes and Gallaga) and don’t always remember her (Aquino being a particularly dim example) and fictional people who don’t know her but have to deal with her (the directors and actresses of the film productions she visits)—in a way the inversion only serves to burnish her fame: she’s such a cult legend you need to invent people who don’t know who she is.

Real or reel, it all doesn’t really matter; Cuntapay is sui generis, a force all her own, by turns charming and infuriating, cunning and clueless, totally out-of-touch and completely plugged in. To paraphrase what director Gallaga said about her “She’s not like a demon, she is a demon.”

The film has it all: deadpan comedy (Cuntapay arriving at a film shoot that doesn’t quite know what to do with her); domestic chaos (Cuntapay bossing family, friends and neighbors around on the eve of her televised interview); unabashed pathos (Cuntapay and friends waiting for the interview, which is running late). There are moments when Jadaone simply poses Cuntapay in front of a lectern, in some kind of fantastic empty auditorium of her mind, the clothes and props cluttering the hall desaturated of color, our heroine standing there and saying nothing, the faint sound of applause echoing in the wings. A moment of delusional fantasy? A pause out of respect for our heroine? Or an excuse to wallow in monumental self-pity? Perhaps not the latter; Cuntapay’s life is nothing if not tragedy on a small scale–she’s spent years playing bit parts in this or that film, often cheap horror flicks, and she’s hardly ever  paid well (or even fully) and she’s rarely given the due respect accorded to industry veterans (they treat her like the senile old grandmother no one wants to talk to). And yet she never gives up, never comes to a shoot late, never fails to learn her line or wait forever for a scene that might never get shot, or if shot might never make it to the final film. She has something of the pathos of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, a belle heroically waving a flag to a parade long past, only she never even enjoyed the glamor Norma did in her halcyon days.

With Six Degrees, Cuntapay finally has her moment under the spotlight, and Jadaone for one is not shy pointing it in her direction, not afraid to allow the actress pull out all the stops, drop the necessary tears for a Best Actress trophy (one of my problems with these horse races is the unimaginatively restrictive criteria: you always need a crying scene, a requirement Jadaone parodies brilliantly—when samples of the actresses’ performances are screened, they’re all crying scenes, of mind-numbing uniformity). At the same time Cuntapay rises to the challenge of the film’s real best moments: on the film set, when she finds herself in over her head, unequal to the task of both playing her role and promoting herself to the people around her (the one essential skill of a movie actor), yet somehow finding the strength to soldier on. Cuntapay may or may not be playing herself, but she looks most fully herself in these scenes, all the while mixing comedy and pathos with deft skill, all the while advancing Jadaone’s themes—the elusive nature of fame, the elastic nature of identity—with the greatest of ease.

One thinks of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool,” and his tragicomic, surprisingly cogent final meditation on his own gullibility. Gimpel’s final words on his approaching end reveal an almost divine sense of acceptance, an epiphanic awareness: “When the time comes I will go joyfully. Whatever may be there, it will be real, without complication, without ridicule, without deception. God be praised: there even Gimpel cannot be deceived.” Singer through Gimpel could have been talking of Cuntapay when he talked about his destiny; both have the innocence, courage and faith to face what happens next, come what may.

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