I have no shame! Most people hide their old work — you’ll never see my undergraduate thesis on F. Sionil Jose, ha ha! But here’s an old college paper that has mysteriously survived a disk crash and a couple of upgrades. One day I may return to it, but the whole paper requires a total overhaul. (My take on Barbi now would be somewhat different.) “Alternate subversive texts against the hegemony of Western culture?” I mean, come on — De Leon’s smart, but he would most likely think that reading would be a load of crap. If anything, you’ll get a good glimpse of my sources for bad Pinoy trivia.
Here it is, in all its stark, embarrassing, unedited, late-’80s glory. (Note: I needed to post something long to keep the right tables from wrapping underneath everything, and this worked in a pinch.)
When the history of Philippine popular culture in the Eighties is written, one name will undoubtedly be mentioned: Joey de Leon. His recent string of low-budget but phenomenally popular films have established his work as a solo performer, apart from Tito and Vic Sotto. As writer, director, and star his movies have aroused much controversy, prompting critics and newspaper columnists to bewail the declining quality of Philippine cinema, as exemplified by the De Leon films.
But despite scathing reviews, the films continue to be top money grossers, and this is certainly a clear indication of audience preference. Why, then, are his films extremely popular, despite their “poor” quality? In turn, it may say something about his audience. Forget the poor editing and the glaring lapses in narration, disregard the limited cinematography and generally wooden-faced acting; Joey de Leon has something deeper to say here.
De Leon’s films have all dealt with American cultural icons, from Tarzan (the three Starzan movies), the Lone Ranger (Long Ranger and Tonto), He-Man (She-Man), Superman and Mighty Mouse (Super Mouse and the Roborats), Barbie (Barbi), and Elvis Presley and James Dean (Elvis and James 1 and 2), and whether this may account for their popularity will be dealt with in this study.
This paper will discuss Joey de Leon’s films as alternate subversive texts against the hegemony of Western culture. It will also tackle the “epic” quality of the films, and their attempt to elevate De Leon and his co-actor, Rene Requiestas — along with Fernando Poe, Jr. — to “epic hero” status, as replacements for the Western heroes. This paper will focus on only five works: Super Mouse and the Roborats, Elvis and James 1 and 2, Starzan 2, and Hot Dog (a Tito, Vic and Joey starrer).
Some readers may point out that De Leon is merely using Western images to promote his own films; it shows the sorry state of Filipino culture — that the audience is primarily more familiar with Western culture. This may be true, but it emphasizes more the need to subvert the Western domination. Working with familiar images makes the films’ attempts at subversion more direct, more intense, and more effective. Neither is it De Leon’s way of appropriating Western culture; he is not merely absorbing the images in his own terms, but deliberately twisting them.
Of course, parodies of American characters have always been around: less popular comedians like Redford White, Palito, and Chiquito have lampooned Rocky (Rocky Tu-log), James Bond (James Bone), the Karate Kid (The Master and the Karate Gid), Rambo (Rambo-Tango), and the Six Million Dollar Man (The Six Million Centavo Man), among others. De Leon, however, has outlasted and outgrossed them all. Perhaps De Leon has articulated his message better then the former filmmakers.
Super Mouse and the Roborats is loaded with Western cultural references: Mickey (De Leon), the hero, makes a Madonna imitation; Super Mouse’s costume is the same as the cartoon character Mighty Mouse’s; Mickey sings a song (to the tune of “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head”) with two cartoon mice, a scene reminiscent of Mary Poppins; the Roborats’ costumes are the same as Darth Vader’s costume in the Star Wars trilogy. The end of the movie is also familiar, when the head Roborat unmasks himself and reveals himself to be Super Mouse’s father — in The Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader unmasks himself too and reveals he is Luke Skywalker’s father.
Other American characters are similarly skewered, like the Lone Ranger and Tonto: Barbie, the Mattel doll with the exaggeratedly perfect figure (and, in a way, the “embodiment” of the ideal American woman), becomes a transvestite household drudge in Barbi. The Edgar Rice Burroughs creation Tarzan, in the hands of De Leon, is a potbellied, sex-starved bumbler.
In Elvis and James, the satire becomes even more intense: the names of the secondary characters themselves are parodies. There is Elvis Presto’s girlfriend, Marilyn Monroy (Maricel Laxa); James Dacuycoy’s girlfriend, Long Tall Sally (from a Beatles song); a teacher at Jaena High, Eleanor Rigby (from another Beatles song); Libourache (Panchito), the gay music instructor; and Johnny B (from the Chuck Berry song “Johnny B. Goode”), Elvis’ arch-rival. In Elvis and James 2, their love interests are named Tina, Diana and Whitney (named, of course, for the three goddesses of soul music, Tina Turner, Diana Ross, and Whitney Houston). The duo foils a hostage attempt by four bald robbers named John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Both movies are full of musical numbers satirizing popular American ’50s songs.
De Leon’s Elvis is a mixture of Presley fashion and Poe swagger. Requiestas’ James is even worse: not even remotely resembling James Dean, James Dacuycoy, with a cigarette dangling constantly from his lips, is ready to kill anyone who dares touch his hair, and froths at the mouth whenever he gets too close to women.
Sometimes De Leon even takes a swipe at his own government. Starzan’s arch-rival is a transvestite named Tita Gori, who is, appropriately enough, Queen of the Gorillas. Starzan and Jane’s (Zsa Zsa Padilla) sponsors at their wedding are Cory Aquino and Ferdinand Marcos.
The films, however, are not simply twisting American icons; the Filipino heroes are also asking for acceptance. Acceptance and rejection is a major theme in the De Leon films, where he and Requiestas often play outsiders attempting to integrate with the society and ultimately being rejected. In Super Mouse, the duo are part of a carnival, the members of which (the “peryantes”) are looked down upon by the town populace. Paeng (played by the midget actor Noel “Ungga” Ayala) is rejected by Dora (Manilyn Reynes). Elvis and James are regarded as social misfits, who wear the same clothes day in and day out and drive a tricycle to school. They are constantly the butt of jokes (like the young Mickey in Super Mouse), especially from Johnny B, who looks down on them as poor (“Masyadong kang eyepoor,” James tells Johnny B. “Matapobre.”)
In Hot Dog, the brothers Juan, Jose and Pedro are driven away from their home by the villagers (who are ready to torch their house) who consider them bad luck. They run to the forest and feed a starving old woman, who turns into a fairy and gives them an enchanted dog, the counterpart of the goose who laid the golden egg. (Since dogs do not lay eggs, the scriptwriter had to turn to the only other recourse.) Armed with bags full of golden feces, the brothers buy rice and canned food and distribute them to the needy of their community. The gold-defecating dog reaches the attention of the local greedy landlord (played by Paquito Diaz), who exclaims: “Hindi ako papayag! Ako lang ang pinaka-mayaman dito!” and proceeds to have the dog stolen, with disastrous results.
The rich/poor dichotomy is seen here, with the rich portrayed as greedy and unscrupulous. It is the rich casino owner who has Mickey’s adoptive “mother” (actually a fat circus transvestite) stabbed in the back in Super Mouse; it is the rich students who terrorize Elvis and James; it is the rich hunters headed by Bad Max (Ruel Vernal) who steal the King Diamond from the Jacuzi tribe in Starzan 2. It is the poor, the carnival freaks, the downtrodden, and the rejected who are elevated in De Leon’s films. Super Mouse, the Long Ranger, and Starzan are presented as defenders of the “little people.”
The little people are shown as virtuous; simplicity, virtue, and goodwill are emphasized in the films. The protagonists of Hot Dog are rewarded for their good deeds, and Diaz and his goons are vanquished; in his confusion over the complexities of the city, Starzan (in Starzan 1) tries to take his life by jumping from a building. Super Mouse pleads for the life of his friends (who are kidnapped by the Roborats for use in experiments), and the Roborats relent (“Sana, matandaan ninyo na kami rin ay may magandang asal, hindi katulad ng ibang tao,” the head Roborat (Ruel Vernal) squeaks.)
Starzan is prevented by his pregnant wife Jane from joining the search for the stolen King Diamond: “Iiwanan mo ba ‘ko sa ganitong kalagayan, eh may pamilya ka na?” Starzan answers: “Sa gubat, kami lahat, isa pamilya,” thus emphasizing communality. The moral of Elvis and James is, as James pronounces at the end, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” It wisely sums up a lesson from the whole De Leon series — the Roborats, Elvis and James, Starzan (and Cheeta-eh and Ungga), and everybody else — are to be judged according to their internal values and personality, not for the way they look, or the clothes they wear, or the place they come from.
Elvis and James 2 reportedly flopped at the box office, though it deals with the same acceptance/rejection theme, but to a lesser degree. This time, it is rock ‘n’ roll music versus the Establishment (in the person of Prof. Mozart (Lou Veloso), hysterical music instructor). Mozart’s proposal to hold a class recital is squelched by Elvis’ proposal for a barn dance, and Mozart exacts revenge (“Rock is evil! Repent!” he cries) by burning down the barn. In the end, Mozart is committed to an asylum, and Elvis affirms that all music is good. It is a limited message (and a passe one, for rock is already part of the Establishment). The audience is given less opportunities to identify with Elvis and James, who are now Music students at UP (their main problem at the start is where to enroll for college). The Elvis and James here are also strangely different from the ones in Part One: here, they attack an actress, and espouse the virtues of a-go-go dancers.
But one common thread that binds the films together are the references to the “unacknowledged” modern Filipino epic hero, Fernando Poe, Jr. The sharp audience will recognize Poe’s swagger (in Starzan and Elvis’ gait), Poe’s movies (“Gawa na ang balang papatay sa iyo! Ako ang huhusga!” cries Ungga in a shootout with Bad Max’s men; the Dacuycoy family is called “pamilya bungal“), and Poe’s characteristic rapid-fire punching (in Aling Susie, Elvis and James’ maid of sorts, who keeps beating up their gay landlord). (A recent Jimmy Santos/Requiestas/Ayala film, Small Medium Large, has its three lead characters named Fernando, Pol, and Junior. The title of the movie Gawa Na Ang Balang Papatay Sa Iyo has probably appeared, in different phrasings, in almost all of the films (even in Vic Sotto’s).)The references to Poe are probably not meant to make fun of him, but to elevate him similarly as epic hero. If the Western heroes are subverted, then Poe must take their place, as even his gestures have fallen into myth.
But the heroes that De Leon plays are not exactly heroes. Super Mouse destroys highway billboards, he lets a man commit suicide in front of him, he allows a bank robber to shoot an ugly bank teller. The De Leon films themselves take a morbid look at mayhem, and all of it is supposed to be funny: Doro (Requiestas) accidentally sets himself on fire, and a girl is knifed twice in the forehead in a carnival show accident in Super Mouse; Don Pabling’s (Panchito) posterior is accidentally burned by an overzealous herbolario in Hot Dog; Ungga’s reproductive organ is bitten by a snake, and a transvestite is cooked by gorillas in Starzan 2; James is almost frozen to death in Baguio in Elvis and James.
This suggests a somewhat perverted manner of looking at Super Mouse and Starzan as heroes: these are comedies, they are no real heroes, and they are not meant to be serious. The movie itself constantly betrays its nature by reminding the movie audience that this is a movie. In Elvis and James 2, Elvis throws a hairbrush at James, misses, and hits the cameraman instead. In Starzan 3, Ungga complains that he has no “ka-love team” in the movie, and Starzan assures him: “Maghintay ka, sabi ni Direk, sa Starzan 4 na lang.” In Super Mouse, after a song duet with Manilyn Reynes, Ayala turns to the camera and says, “Sorry, Keempee, ha?” Keempee is not only Joey de Leon’s son, but also Reynes’ love teammate in real life. The song they sing is a parodized version of “Sayang na Sayang“, a song Reynes popularized herself. The references to events and people outside the realm of the movie are many and varied.
More interesting, however, are the references to other De Leon films. In Long Ranger and Tonton, there is a scene where Tonton (Requiestas) and a bandit take turns lighting and snuffing out a candle by shooting at it with a gun (“Patay.” “Buhay.” “Patay.” “Buhay.”) The same dialogue occurs in Elvis and James when Requiestas tips over his long-dead grandfather’s coffin, and the corpse awakens. In the same movie, Ayala makes a cameo appearance, and tells James: “Mabuti ka pa, may sine ngayon,” and James answers, “Magkikita naman tayo sa Starzan 3, eh.” Even the phrase “Ganda lalaki” (and “Ganda babae“), coined in Starzan, has appeared in Barbi, the other Starzan movies, and is even in the title of Requiestas’ new movie. At the end of Super Mouse, Keempee de Leon makes a cameo appearance dressed as Starzan.
The inside references would only be effective if the audience is familiar with De Leon’s other movies, or at least his movie trailers. His works, then, demand a somewhat more active participation from the audience; they demand that the viewer has prior knowledge. Gags of this sort would fall flat without knowing the referent; viewing a De Leon film almost requires the viewer to be familiar with the other films.
There is a sense of interrelatedness in the films; perhaps one is inextricable from the other. This invites the critic to look at the series holistically. If the gags, the situations, the themes, the cast, and even the characterizations are the same, then the movies are probably connected in a way.
It may be that the movies belong to a larger frame — a whole epic, perhaps. The shortcomings in the films that the critics decry may be defended as remnants of an oral culture. The largely “flat” characters (as opposed to “round”) belong to most oral epics, including the episodic nature of the films. Elaborate jokes are simply strung together with a hardly tangible plot line (interspersed with musical numbers); like the oral epic, there is no actual climax: fragments of subplots weave in and out, and the movies usually begin in medias res.
But even the plots are similar, in a way, to the Campbellian monomyth (reduced to its essentials). The offspring of an other-worldly being, the hero comes to earth with super powers, and helps the innocent and fights evil. This, in fact is basically the same structure as in Superman, the Star Wars trilogy, and, if one stretches it, the Gospels — and, of course, Mighty Mouse. The heroes are given supernatural aid: Mickey’s superpowers in Super Mouse, after his “mother” is killed; and the dog in Hot Dog. The three heroes in the latter film even get to make a literal (and not just symbolic) marriage with the goddess (in this case, the fairy).
Along with FPJ, Joey de Leon and Rene Requiestas may be the epic heroes of our time. Through De Leon’s films subverting and deliberately twisting American cultural icons, the simple, the “native”, and the poor has been elevated. In their various screen incarnations which transcend time, place, and context, they preserve the quality of oral narration and weave tales for an age. They may be clumsy, stupid and even repulsive “heroes” who drag the viewers along through their misadventures, but they equip the audience with the ability to laugh at their (our) condition. And in the end, they are victorious.
The main unwritten implication of this paper is that De Leon’s films are so popular because of their function as repository of anti-Western (or “nationalistic” sentiment; the audience may unconsciously enjoy seeing the bashing of foreign cultural icons on the head, and De Leon may be unconscious of this too. This idea may be taken by readers as seriously as, say, De Leon’s films themselves, but the subversive implications of the films are perhaps clear. But there is one sure thing, though: Joey de Leon has irrevocably touched the pulse of our people, and it is reason enough for this study.