Fan Girl Review: Allegory of the Diehard Devout Stan (DDS)


[Spoiler alert! Trigger warning: This film contains scenes depicting child sexual abuse.

By L.S. Mendizabal

In 2000-something, dressed in my high school uniform, I went to the local city mall during class hours to see Orange and Lemons perform live. Armed with my Nokia 7250, I remember chasing after the band members on the escalators—they were going up, I was going down!—desperate to get closer images of them. My fangirling skills include effectively elbowing my way through crowds at jam-packed concerts and shows to get to at least second row, but nothing as wild as what Antoinette Jadaone’s latest film’s titular character is capable of doing for a more intimate encounter with a stranger she equates to nothing short of a god.

Fan Girl begins like any other movie directed and written by Jadaone in the Filipino setting with its depressing nature often eclipsed by dry Pinoy wit and humor and an ambitious, strong-willed female protagonist. In this case, she’s a 16-year-old high school student (Charlie Dizon) with chipped hot pink nail polish and an unhealthy obsession with a celebrity (Paolo Avelino playing a fictional larger-than-life version of himself). Paolo’s omnipresence from the internet to life-size cut-out standees and billboards as well as his effortless evasion of traffic laws establish the character’s popularity. When the fan girl skips class to see him at a mall show and stealthily makes her way to the back of his pick-up truck where she hides herself amongst her idol’s posters, merchandise and gifts from other fans, the mood is light, airy, silly, even borderline rom-com. The only real source of conflict is if she gets caught. The minute Paolo drives past the toll gates and spews out his first “Putangina!” of probably a thousand, the viewer is taken into a darker, harsher environment: vast rice fields and grasslands, rough roads, no electricity, a heavily locked gate one should climb over, an old, abandoned mansion/drug den. The fan girl is now trapped, hours away from home, her phone unable to send a single text. In her eyes, however, everything is brightly optimistic, not unlike Paolo’s romantic flicks. She feels safe with him. He can do no wrong. She is close to him and nothing else matters.

Screengrab from the film Fan Girl.

The fan girl is clearly delusional. Blinded by hero worship and overall naivete, she is not a reliable storyteller. Like Paolo, the film undresses from its initially attractive exterior and reveals the plot at its core: an obsessed girl—a child!—is stuck with a vaguely threatening male adult, the object of her obsession. Without giving away too many spoilers, all the viewer’s fears come true as the two main characters spend a day and a night over alcohol, cigarettes and drugs. The fan girl takes everything he offers, eager to please her host. Dizon gives one of the most convincing performances I’ve seen of someone new to these substances. I’m happy to report that you’ll find none of that stupid “Pare, hindi ako lashing” sort of drunk acting here (if you’ve seen Filipino movies and teleseryes at all, you know exactly what I mean). Dizon is truly beguiling in the way that her character tries to play a more mature seductress (“Hindi na ako bata,” she says thrice) but is betrayed by her perennially sweaty upper lip, stringy hair and breath that reeks of vomit. In the hands of a cis-hetero male writer / director, scenes like this could’ve easily become something like a glorified sex scandal.

Screengrab from the film Fan Girl.

Paolo is appalled yet intrigued by the fan girl’s childish qualities. Her adoration fuels his ego and aggravates his desire to exploit and dominate her. I’ve seen many a disturbing movie but this one has still made me turn in my seat. Sometimes, there’s nothing more terrifying than watching a megalomaniac take advantage of a fanatic too smitten with him to see what he really is: a macho-fascist, misogynist and rapist. On the other hand, Paolo is written as somewhat of a caricature-like villain, complete with tattoos, alcoholism, drug dependence and a heavy metal score. Personally, I find this a bit much but I guess it was intentional. After all, he does remind me of the Dutertes and their refreshing “bad boy” strongman mass appeal what with their rugged demeanors and similar choice of expletives to Paolo’s in the sea of polished orators and traditional politicians. There are rare instances when Paolo shows a more human, sensitive side. This disappears almost abruptly with each opportunity of manipulating the fan girl. The car scene where she has a meltdown (Dizon’s award-winning moment, in my opinion) and asks if she could stay one more night with him is the viewer’s first glimpse of her personal struggle. We come to understand that she does not look forward to coming home to a mother who is similarly enamored with her abusive stepfather. The fantasy of Paolo has been her escape all along.

Screengrab from the film Fan Girl.

Fan Girl is a coming-of-age horror story and an allegory of sorts. Knowing one of the script consultants and film poster designer, Karl Castro, and his controversial yet critically praised thesis production, Manwal sa Paggawa ng Pelikula (2007), I can see how Fan Girl, too, is a critique of the film industry itself: how it keeps artists’ careers afloat with love teams and fake romances, how it feeds on stan culture and how the industry has looked the other way when its biggest earning stars go unscathed after sexually abusing or raping hapless individuals.

In a post-Duterte Philippines, where celebrity, influencer culture, fanaticism and social media are all effectively used and weaponized by the current regime against all forms of dissent, Fan Girl is undoubtedly a product of its time. We see how a diehard devout stan (DDS) continues to believe and venerate her idol despite all the truths she’s uncovered. It doesn’t bug her that he has lied about being Bea Alonzo’s boyfriend, or that he uses drugs, or practically treats her like trash. She only begins to question his morals when she discovers that he’s screwing a married woman. And then, without warning, the fan girl ceases to be loyal to Paolo when she witnesses him beat said woman. The instant she sees her own poor family in Paolo’s woman and child is when the fantasy is shattered. The spell is broken and her prince becomes a frog. The lack of transition is quite jarring. However, if seen and appreciated as an allegory, Fan Girl’s ending actually makes perfect sense: Now surrounded by posters and tarpaulins of President Rodrigo Duterte’s face, the fan girl, whose name we actually find out in the end, decides to help her family by putting an end to her stepfather’s abuse. Who does she turn to? The repressive state institution being championed by diehard devout stans, of course. She has exercised personal agency. The problem lies within the very system that only serves and protects Paolos.

Disturbingly dark, twisted, unforgiving in its honesty and social commentary, and arguably her best and bravest yet, Fan Girl is entirely unlike any other movie by Jadaone. And we need more stories like this now. More than ever. #

‘Aswang’ Documentary Review: Do Not Dare Look Away

By L.S. Mendizabal

(Trigger warning: Murders, mutilation of corpses)

Pumarito ka. Bahala ka, kukunin ka ng aswang diyan! (Come here, or else the aswang will get you!)” is a threat often directed at Filipino children by their mothers. In fact, you can’t be Filipino without having heard it at least once in your life. For as early as in childhood, we are taught to fear creatures we’ve only seen in nightmares triggered by bedtime stories told by our Lolas.

In Philippine folklore, an “aswang” is a shape-shifting monster that roams in the night to prey on people or animals for survival. They may take a human form during the day. The concept of “monster” was first introduced to us in the 16th century by the Spanish to demonize animist shamans, known as “babaylan” and “asog,” in order to persuade Filipino natives to abandon their “anitos” (nature, ancestor spirits) and convert to Roman Catholicism—a colonizing tactic that proved to be effective from Luzon to Northern Mindanao.

In the early 1950s, seeing that Filipinos continued to be superstitious, the Central Intelligence Agency weaponized folklore against the Hukbong Bayan Laban sa Hapon (Hukbalahap), an army of mostly local peasants who opposed US intervention in the country following our victory over the Japanese in World War II. The CIA trained the Philippine Army to butcher and puncture holes in the dead bodies of kidnapped Huk fighters to make them look like they were bitten and killed by an aswang. They would then pile these carcasses on the roadside where the townspeople could see them, spreading fear and terror in the countryside. Soon enough, people stopped sympathizing with and giving support to the Huks, frightened that the aswang might get them, too.

Fast forward to a post-Duterte Philippines wherein the sight of splayed corpses has become as common as of the huddled living bodies of beggars in the streets. Under the harsh, flickering streetlights, it’s difficult to tell the dead and the living apart. This is one of many disturbing images you may encounter in Alyx Ayn Arumpac’s Aswang. The documentary, which premiered online and streamed for free for a limited period last weekend, chronicles the first two years of President Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign on illegal drugs. “Oplan Tokhang” authorized the Philippine National Police to conduct a door-to-door manhunt of drug dealers and/or users. According to human rights groups, Tokhang has killed an estimated 30,000 Filipinos, most of whom were suspected small-time drug offenders without any actual charges filed against them. A pattern emerged of eerily identical police reports across cases: They were killed in a “neutralization” because they fought back (“nanlaban”) with a gun, which was the same rusty .38 caliber pistol repeatedly found along with packets of methamphetamine (“shabu”) near the bloodied corpses. When children and innocent people died during operations, PNP would call them “collateral damage.” Encouraged by Duterte himself, there were also vigilante killings too many to count. Some were gunned down by unidentified riding-in-tandem suspects, while some ended up as dead bodies wrapped in duct tape, maimed or accessorized with a piece of cardboard bearing the words, “Pusher ako, huwag tularan” (I’m a drug pusher, do not emulate). Almost all the dead casualties shared one thing in common: they were poor. Virtually no large-scale drug lord suffered the same fate they did.

And for a while, it was somehow tempting to call it “fate.” Filipinos were being desensitized to the sheer number of drug-related extrajudicial killings (a thousand a month, according to the film). “Nanlaban” jokes and memes circulated on Facebook and news of slain Tokhang victims were no longer news as their names and faces were reduced to figures in a death toll that saw no end.

As much as Aswang captures the real horrors and gore of the drug war, so has it shown effectively the abnormal “sense of normal” in the slums of Manila as residents deal with Tokhang on the daily. Fearing for their lives has become part of their routine along with making sure they have something to eat or slippers on their feet. This biting everyday reality is highlighted by Arumpac’s storytelling unlike that of any documentary I’ve ever seen. Outlined by poetic narration with an ominous tone that sounds like a legitimately hair-raising ghost story, Aswang transports the audience, whether they like it or not, from previously seeing Tokhang exclusively on the news to the actual scenes of the crime and funerals through the eyes of four main individuals: a nightcrawler photojournalist and dear family friend, Ciriaco Santiago III (“Brother Jun” to many), a funeral parlor operator, a street kid and an unnamed woman.

Along with other nightcrawlers, Bro. Jun waits for calls or texts alerting them of Tokhang killings all over Manila’s nooks and crannies. What sets him apart from the others, perhaps motivated by his mission as Redemptorist Brother, is that he speaks to the families of the murdered victims to not only obtain information but to comfort them. In fact, Bro. Jun rarely speaks throughout the film. Most of the time, he’s just listening, his brows furrowed with visible concern and empathy. It’s as if the bereaved are confessing to him not their own transgressions but those committed against them by the state. One particular scene that really struck me is when he consoles a middle-aged man whose brother was just killed not far from his house. “Kay Duterte ako pero mali ang ginawa nila sa kapatid ko” (I am for Duterte but what they did to my brother was wrong), he says to Bro. Jun in between sobs. Meanwhile, a mother tells the story of how her teenage son went out with friends and never came home. His corpse later surfaced in a mortuary. “Just because Duterte gave [cops] the right to kill, some of them take advantage because they know there won’t be consequences,” she angrily says in Filipino before wailing in pain while showing Bro. Jun photos of her son smiling in selfies and then laying pale and lifeless at the morgue.

The Eusebio Funeral Services is a setting in the film that becomes as familiar as the blood-soaked alleys of the city. Its operator is an old man who gives the impression of being seasoned in his profession. And yet, nothing has prepared him for the burden of accommodating at least five cadavers every night when he was used to only one to two a week. When asked where all the unclaimed bodies go, he casually answers, “mass burial.” We later find out at the local cemetery that “mass burial” is the stacking of corpses in tiny niches they designated for the nameless and kinless. Children pause in their games as they look on at this crude interment, after which a man seals the niche with hollow blocks and wet cement, ready to be smashed open again for the next occupant/s. At night, the same cemetery transforms into a shelter for the homeless whose blanketed bodies resemble those covered in cloth at Eusebio Funeral Services.

Tama na po, may exam pa ako bukas” (Please stop, I still have an exam tomorrow). 17-year-old high school student, Kian Delo Santos, pleaded for his life with these words before police shot him dead in a dark alley near his home. The documentary takes us to this very alley without the foreknowledge that the corpse we see on the screen is in fact Kian’s. At his wake, we meet Jomari, a little boy who looks not older than seven but talks like a grown man. He fondly recalls Kian as a kind friend, short of saying that there was no way he could’ve been involved in drugs. Jomari should know, his parents are both in jail for using and peddling drugs. At a very young age, he knows that the cops are the enemy and that he must run at the first sign of them. Coupled with this wisdom and prematurely heightened sense of self-preservation is Jomari’s innocence, glimpses of which we see when he’s thrilled to try on new clothes and when he plays with his friends. Children in the slums are innocent but not naïve. They play with wild abandon but their exchanges are riddled with expletives, drugs and violence. They even reenact a Tokhang scene where the cops beat up and shoot a victim.

Towards the end of the film, a woman whose face is hidden and identity kept private gives a brief interview where, like the children drawing monsters only they could see in horror movies, she sketches a prison cell she was held in behind a bookshelf. Her interview alternates with shots of the actual secret jail that was uncovered by the press in a police station in Tondo in 2017. “Naghuhugas lang po ako ng pinggan n’ung kinuha nila ‘ko!” (I was just washing the dishes when they took me!), screams one woman the very second the bookshelf is slid open like a door. Camera lights reveal the hidden cell to be no wider than a corridor with no window, light or ventilation. More than ten people are inside. They later tell the media that they were abducted and have been detained for a week without cases filed against them, let alone a police blotter. They slept in their own shit and urine, were tortured and electrocuted by the cops, and told that they’d only be released if they paid the PNP money ranging from 10 000 to 100 000 pesos. Instead of being freed that day, their papers are processed for their transfer to different jails.

Aswang is almost surreal in its depiction of social realities. It is spellbinding yet deeply disturbing in both content and form. Its extremely violent visuals and hopelessly bleak scenes are eclipsed by its more delicate moments: Bro. Jun praying quietly by his lonesome after a night of pursuing trails of blood, Jomari clapping his hands in joyful glee as he becomes the owner of a new pair of slippers, an old woman playing with her pet dog in an urban poor community, a huge rally where protesters demand justice for all the victims of EJKs and human rights violations, meaning that they were not forgotten. It’s also interesting to note that while the film covers events in a span of two years, the recounting of these incidents is not chronological as seen in Bro. Jun’s changing haircuts and in Jomari’s unchanging outfit from when he gets new slippers to when he’s found after months of going missing. Without naming people, places and even dates, with Arumpacletting the poor do most of the heavy lifting bysimply telling their stories on state terrorism and impunity in their own language, Aswang succeeds in demonstrating how Duterte’s war on drugs is, in reality, a genocide of the poor, elevating the film beyond numb reportage meant to merely inform the public to being a testament to the people’s struggle. The scattered sequence, riveting images, sinister music and writing that borrows elements from folklore and the horror genre make Aswang feel more like a dream than a documentary—a nightmare, to be precise. And then, a rude awakening. The film compels us to replay and review Oplan Tokhang by bringing the audience to a place of such intimate and troubling closeness with the dead and the living they had left behind.

Its unfiltered rawness makes Aswang a challenging yet crucial watch. Blogger and company CEO, Cecile Zamora, wrote on her Instagram stories that she only checked Aswang out since it was trending but that she gave up 23 minutes in because it depressed her, declaring the documentary “not worth her mental health” and discouraging her 52,000 followers from watching it, too. Naturally, her tone-deaf statements went viral on Twitter and in response to the backlash, she posted a photo of a Tokhang victim’s family with a caption that said she bought them a meal and gave them money as if this should exempt her from criticism and earn her an ally cookie, instead.

 Aswang is definitely not a film about privileged Filipinos like Zamora—who owns designer handbags and lives in a luxurious Ed Calma home—but this doesn’t make the documentary any less relevant or necessary for them to watch. Zamora missed the point entirely: Aswang is supposed to make her and the rest of us feel upset! It nails the purpose of art in comforting the disturbed and disturbing the comfortable. It establishes that the only aswang that exists is not a precolonial shaman or a shape-shifting monster, but fear itself—the fear that dwells within us that is currently aggravated and used by a fascist state to force us into quiet submission and apathy towards the most marginalized sectors of society.

Before the credits roll, the film verbalizes its call to action in the midst of the ongoing slaughter of the poor and psychological warfare by the Duterte regime:

“Kapag sinabi nilang may aswang, ang gusto talaga nilang sabihin ay, ‘Matakot ka.’ Itong lungsod na napiling tambakan ng katawan ay lalamunin ka, tulad ng kung paano nilalamon ng takot ang tatag. Pero meron pa ring hindi natatakot at nagagawang harapin ang halimaw. Dito nagsisimula.” (When they say there’s a monster, what they really want to say is “be afraid.” This city, chosen to be the dumpsite of the dead, will devour you as fear devours courage. But there are still those who are not afraid and are able to look the monster in the eye. This is where it begins).

During these times, when an unjust congressional vote recently shut down arguably the country’s largest multimedia network in an effort to stifle press freedom and when the Anti-Terrorism Law is now in effect, Aswang should be made more accessible to the masses because it truly is a must-see for every Filipino, and by “must-see,” I mean, “Don’t you dare look away.” #

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Buan, L. (2020). “UN Report: Documents suggest PH Police Planted Guns in Drug War Ops”. Rappler. Retrieved from

Ichimura, A., & Severino, A. (2019). “How the CIA Used the Aswang to Win a War in the Philippines”. Esquire. Retrieved from

Lim, B. C. (2015). “Queer Aswang Transmedia: Folklore as Camp”. Kritika Kultura, 24. Retrieved from

Tan, L. (2017). “Duterte Encourages Vigilante Killings, Tolerates Police Modus – Human Rights Watch”. CNN Philippines. Retrieved from

ANG ‘HULING EL BIMBO, THE MUSICAL’ REVIEW: When is nostalgia too much that it hurts?

By L.S. Mendizabal

Spoiler alert! Trigger warning: rape

The recent free streaming of Ang Huling El Bimbo The Musical on ABS-CBN’s Facebook page and YouTube channel was trending over the weekend and has since bred long, heated discussions among netizens on its content over form. Directed and choreographed by Dexter Santos, it delivered his signature masterful storytelling which I had had the privilege to be spellbound with in his earlier productions in Dulaang UP back in college. All the songs by the Eraserheads, about 30 in total, which provided the show’s repertoire, are hauntingly familiar to 90s kids and babies alike. As for the writing, I could not find fault in Dingdong Novenario when it came down to the accuracy of the times, human characterization, the right balance between humor and tragedy and the most difficult task of building a distinctly unforgettable story around already very iconic songs. “I hope I do the band justice,” Novenario once said in an interview. Frankly, this was where the problem lays. Now, before you come for me, let me just say that I enjoyed the musical thoroughly—it’s really hard not to love anything from Santos, anyway—except for a single scene which I personally found a bit too jarring and which I shall go over later as we try to examine both form and content.

Act One began in medias res with a police officer looking down at a dead body. This served as the catalyst for all the turmoil that would disturb the otherwise comfortable lives of three successful middle-aged men: Emman, a government employee, Anthony, a wealthy businessman and Hector, an established director. These men had history, being college roommates and best friends in the 90s. Their nostalgia kicked off with flashbacks to some of the oldest Eraserheads songs juxtaposed with their freshman life in a state university that looked and sounded a lot like the University of the Philippines. I especially loved the numerous song mashups, while the ROTC drill number was quite the spectacle and was easily one of my favorite parts of the musical, granted that watching this live must have been leaps and bounds better. The three boys would then meet Joy, a perky out-of-school merienda peddler about the same age as they were. She became an instant fascination for the boys because of the special attention given to her by their ROTC commandant, Banlaoi, played to evil caricature perfection by Jamie Wilson. Meanwhile, Joy was given life and dimension by Gab Pangilinan with her morena complexion, convincing tambay speak and powerful vocals. Her character in Act One was the epitome of “pure innocence with a dash of daring.” Like the three boys, she was always smiling and hoping, a persistent believer of true love and chaser of dreams. In contrast to the boys, however, she could not afford to hope and dream as big as they did. But they found common ground in youthful idealism and built an effectively portrayed, uncontrived friendship. This would soon be challenged by one night that changed their lives forever, Joy’s moreso, when they went on a road trip to Antipolo (“Overlooking!”) while, of course, singing “Overdrive” and “Alapaap.” These upbeat songs were followed by the slow acoustic, “Fill Her’, which menacingly ushered in the closing of the act with drunk male strangers raping Joy while the three boys were trapped in the car, held at gunpoint.

From happy nostalgia, Act Two opened just a day after that ill-fated night in an entirely different tone. Joy’s hair, which was previously in a half-crown braid now hung limply in a half-ponytail, her eyes empty, her smile not quite the same. She was about to attend the boys’ university graduation as one of the guests, but they forgot her. Together with the other graduates, the boys sang, “Lift your head, baby, don’t be scared / Of the things that could go wrong along the way / You’ll get by with a smile….” Oddly, this particular scene evoked the same “optimistic” mood in the Philippine Department of Tourism’s tribute video for our frontliners where shots of an empty metropolis alternated between images of doctors, nurses, the armed forces, etc. with a female rendition of “With a Smile” playing in the background. While the national president threatens to “shoot people dead,” we will survive this pandemic with a smile. While a girl was gang-raped, everything was going to be alright as long as we stayed positive. In the midst of trials and tribulations, there is always hope. Unfortunately, not for Joy. After the graduation rites, each of the boys acknowledged her presence, but not a word about the night before was uttered. This was to be the last time they would see her alive.

Poster from

From the boys’ college experiences, the focus shifted from hereon to Joy’s struggle in the streets. Her Tiya Dely’s (who’d never be played better than by Sheila Francisco. Man, those pipes!) canteen was constantly being extorted by Banlaoi who happened to be their patron and “protector.” Unless they came up with a new gimmick, the eatery would go bankrupt and face imminent closure. Santos utilized the effect of the revolving stage here so that it wasn’t for the sole purpose of transitioning in and out of scenes but more importantly, for setting the mood and tone of every moment that defined Joy’s downward spiral. “Toyang’s Canteen” slowly turned into “Toyang’s KTV” where female waitresses, sex workers, male customers and drug pushers and users abound. From wearing a lot of yellow that accurately reflected her sunny disposition in Act One, Joy now wore different colors in cooler tones, her hair now loose and disheveled, her smile replaced with a fixed grim expression. Joy, as also symbolized by their eatery, had now completely lost her innocence.

Older Joy was played by Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo whom, in my humble opinion, I have seen in more note-worthy performances. It was easy to suspend disbelief on how physically different Yulo and Pangilinan looked, what with the former’s striking mestiza features, but her American enunciation of certain lines in Taglish and Filipino personally distracted me, considering that she was supposed to be from the urban poor. Nevertheless, it was apparent that the Joy we now saw was no longer the same person literally and figuratively. Naturally, an Eraserheads musical depicting rape would not be complete without singing “Spoliarium.” It was sung in staccato in the confrontation dialogues among the three boys as well as their grown selves (anyone else reminded of Tito, Vic and Joey?)—arguably the most powerful scene in the play. The perfect climax from a slow build of pent-up emotions of male guilt, fear and self-loathing because of what they failed to do for Joy then and how they now all deliberately avoided her when she needed them most. While they did lose their boyhood innocence along the way, it was not quite as tragic as in Joy’s case since her innocence was forcibly, violently taken away from her. Male middle-class nostalgia gave way to an intense clash of principles, justifications and differing, possibly repressed, memories in the heads of the lost boys. “Ewan mo at ewan natin / Sino’ng may pakana / At bakit ba tumilapon ang / Gintong alak diyan sa paligid mo?” Novenario’s writing shone brightest here.

The last 30 minutes, to me, was a pain to watch not because of Joy’s hit-and-run death—we already knew right from the beginning that this was not a tale with a happy ending—but because of the overwhelming romantic sentimentality surrounding it. The three men’s guilt came full circle when they met Joy’s daughter, Ligaya (played by The Voice Kids Philippines 2019 semi-finalist Alexa Salcedo), who casually recounted how her mother described each of them: the “bespren,” the “kuya,” the “pinakaminahal sa lahat.” How a scene could be both tear-jerking and cringe-inducing was certainly baffling to me. You know that these three men were full of bullshit, and yet you feel sympathy for them and pity for Ligaya and Tiya Dely. “Lahat tayo’y mabubuhay ng tahimik at buong ligaya.” Beautiful. Unsettling. Painful to watch. And somehow, I wish it ended right there.

Alas! There had to be a decent funeral for Joy, obviously, paid for by her more successful and fortunate friends. There had to be touching elegies and parting words from Ligaya and the three men preceding a big ol’ group hug to the lyrics of “Ang Huling El Bimbo.” “Magkahawak ang ating kamay / At walang kamalay-malay / Na tinuruan mo ang puso ko / Na umibig nang tunay.” Suddenly, a girl’s rape turned into three boys’ coming-of-age story that came to a closure just now as they were brought together again by her death. Joy who was not only raped, mind you, but was a victim of forced prostitution and drug trafficking, notwithstanding all her misfortunes which are innate to the social class she was born into, was able to teach these poor, miserable middle-aged men what love truly meant. Awwww. If nostalgia was a drug, this part would be the pinnacle of the high where intoxication breeds euphoria. And as in a hallucinatory sequence, the three college boys and a once more young Joy appeared onstage, climbing over the hood of the car atop a hill in Antipolo, while a ghost-like Ligaya joined them until they froze, all their arms raised towards the night sky as if to touch tomorrow. Was Ligaya the silver lining behind all the dark clouds that had crept into and cloaked over Joy’s life? For some reason, I was not quite sold on that metaphorical tableau. It was pretty to look at, sure, but it was too unnervingly romantic. If anything, Ligaya would only be another Joy once these men decided to backslide into their comfortable lives in social oblivion again, just as they did when they abandoned Joy many times over.

I would not go as far as calling Joy a “disposable woman” trope because her character was not flat like that, or the men’s arc as “redemptive,” although they tend to give those impressions on the surface level. The way I see it, the story was not about the three boys. It was always about Joy and how the system broke her through the men’s points of view. Because of this strong male perspective, Joy was narrowed into nothing more than a plot device that helped advance the men’s overall narrative and character development. There was an interesting symbolic analysis that I read on Twitter that said Joy represents the exploited poor, while Banlaoi embodies the exploiting, oppressive state. The government (Emman), the rich private sector (Anthony) and the media (Hector) can only do so much to alleviate the dire conditions of the poor because at the end of the day, they are still all instruments of the state. Ang Huling El Bimbo the Musical only intended to portray the harsh reality of being a Filipino, let alone being an impoverished Filipino woman. While legitimate, I still had problems with this appraisal based on the play’s form and content. To be honest, I found the musical to be leaning towards Idealism more than Realism because of the heavily romanticized rendering of forgiveness and absolution for the three men in the last few scenes. It was obviously teetering between some kind of resolution and resilience porn. “But that’s what rape victims are inclined to do in the end: they forgive,” some might argue, and carelessly and unfairly so. You’d be surprised to find out how many Joy’s you might actually know in real life and how many Emman’s, Anthony’s and Hector’s who allowed rape to happen and continue to tolerate it by keeping quiet. After all, isn’t rape the only crime in which it is the victim who must prove her innocence? Not all victims are able to forgive their rapists, and for this reason alone, my heart bleeds for all the Joy’s I know.

Photo from The Life

“But it’s not supposed to be revolutionary or progressive in the least,” some have said. Look, I know. Eraserheads are no The Jerks or Yano. Even the slightest indication of student activism in Emman’s line about being frustrated with the masses because they couldn’t understand the language of student activists (hence the need for “education among the masses” instead of the other way around) was a dead giveaway that this was no socially progressive play. The main protagonists, not excluding the adorable probinsyano, Emman, did not hail from the grassroots. And yet, in order for art to actually mean something, it has to mirror the times and in mirroring the times, social critique is inevitable. Otherwise, we would consider Brillante Mendoza’s poverty porn “supreme art” rather than what they simply are. This watered down social angling, to me, was the musical’s weakness. By choosing to be more romantic and idealistic in tone towards the end, perhaps to please the upper middle class audience for which it was originally produced and staged, the social commentary got lost, drowned by waves and waves of nostalgia. And you know what happens when historical nostalgia is delivered in high doses? It revises history itself. That is why by the end of the show, the men would earn the audience’s sympathy more than ire.

By making this theatrical production watchable for the larger part of the middle classes on the internet, it has opened a new, active discourse on theatre as a political venue in espousing progressive beliefs that should benefit the masses, not alienate them. It has also successfully given new life to appreciating theatre as an art form, the importance of its accessibility to the masses and the justness of fair and equal pay for all genders in theatre (did you know that female actors are sometimes paid less than their male counterparts?) for their hard work. And we live for these kinds of discourses. And yet, is it right to point some weaknesses out in the musical’s narrative and artistic expressions used? I believe so. Is it only right to challenge our artists and writers to come up with a musical, a story, that Filipino women, especially rape victims, deserve? Absolutely.

Not wanting to be an infinite wellspring of negativity, I watched the musical all the way through the credits. I was waiting for some sort of condemnation of rape and other forms of sexual abuse. None. But, hey, let’s look at the bright side: thunderous applause filled the whole of Newport Performing Arts Theater at Resorts World Manila when they called Eraserheads frontman, Ely Buendia, to join the cast of actors and production crew onstage. Indeed, Ang Huling El Bimbo the Musical was able to achieve its goal, which was simply to do the most iconic Filipino band in the 90s justice. #

The Emancipation of Fiona Apple and Me

By L.S. Mendizabal

If I could sum up college in one word, it would be “liberating.” I savored every single new sensation that came with those years, the better ones being the taste of independence from living miles away from family for the first time; the drunken abandon of sprint racing in the wee hours in the streets of Krus na Ligas after ten bottles of beer or so; the touch and tang of another person’s skin in dark, cramped boarding rooms with only an electric fan to cool our bodies down; the sun’s prickling heat on the back of my neck as I marched countless steps, always catching my breath, in between classes and protest rallies. The slow but sure loss of innocence. As in any coming-of-age story, my college years were far from perfect. I had more than my fair share of bullies (although not as bad as in elementary or high school), terror professors, embarrassment that rendered me useless for days, angst, passion, heartache and a rage against the establishment that refuses to die to this day.

You know when you listen to a song and it triggers all sorts of feelings because you’ve somehow subconsciously attached certain memories to it? Well, I have a whole soundtrack of songs in my head, each associated with a secret. If college was a playlist, personally, it mostly consisted of tracks by singer-songwriter and pianist, Fiona Apple, from her 1996 alternative pop/rock debut album to the bluesy bizarreness that was The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (she likes poems for album titles) in 2012. Apple was, to me, kind of like an imaginary friend to a five-year-old and she’d let me read her diaries through her records. I was cutting myself since 14 so naturally, knowing that Apple also suffered from sexual trauma, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression and anxiety since childhood comforted me in my own private acts of self-hatred. She was indeed my “patron saint of mental illness,” as she herself would describe the image that the unforgiving male-dominated press often portrayed her to be. As my source of solace and emotional catharsis, Apple made me feel that I was not alone, that I was not as weird.

Eight years later, listening to her fifth album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters (released on April 17) is like catching up with an old friend, leaving me in complete awe of her evolution from once being a “Sullen Girl” (“And he took my pearl / And he left an empty shell of me / And there’s too much going on / But it’s calm under the waves / In the blue of my oblivion”) to becoming this full-grown, less self-deprecating woman because she’s now more cognizant of other women’s struggles. An artist who is still very much fragile, yes, but no longer afraid of being unapologetically angry. And it’s funny how writing this has also forced me to remember the girl I cannot believe I was at one point in my life. I haven’t harmed myself for a decade now. I mean, who was she? Why did she hurt so much? I almost forgot. How odd.

Apple’s latest 13-track baby which was four years in the making and recorded exclusively in her Venice Beach home is, pure and simple, a collection of protest songs anthemic of the #MeToo era. An assembling of women—fellow used and abused women or the women we used to be—and other casualties of late capitalist patriarchy to condemn our bullies and oppressors for the damages they’ve caused us, supposedly to empower us enough to move forward, conquering the victims within. The record’s title was derived from a scene in the BBC crime drama, The Fall, in which Gillian Anderson’s character said “fetch the bolt cutters” to the police in order to release a girl who was tortured.

Remarkably, Apple and her collaborators were able to produce this furious masterpiece without falling into the trap of sounding like your typical angry girl band, not that that’s bad, of course, but it has been done, not to mention that it isn’t as revolutionary for a comeback from a 90’s icon. Fetch’s overall avant-garde sound is distinctively percussion-heavy, which is a clear departure from her earlier more piano-driven albums. Bells, drums, walls, floors, metal squares, wooden blocks, oil cans filled with dirt, barking dogs and even a box housing the bones of Apple’s dead American Pit Bull Terrier were said to be utilized without any digital filters to create the organic, chaotic yet cohesive sound peculiar to the record. A most delicious cacophony! Apple has never been one to shy away from experimenting with her music and Fetch is arguably her wildest and most unorthodox yet.

Iterative lyrics abound, almost like chants akin to that of “Tiny Hands” (“We don’t want your tiny hands / Anywhere near our underpants”), the song she wrote for the 2017 Women’s March as commentary on the audio recording of Donald Trump bragging about “grabbing women by the pussy.” Personally, I’ve always found Apple’s songs a tad bit difficult to sing because of her expert pitch and tone manipulation, characteristic of jazz vocalists, and these tracks are no different. They compel me to first listen closely to Apple’s unending poetic wit and candor so that at the end of the day, I find myself unable to stop singing, “Evil is a relay sport when the one who’s burned turns to pass the torch” or “Shameika said I had potential” over and over again as in the songs themselves. Every line packs a punch, both in poetry and musicality, further solidifying her place amongst rare lyrical geniuses—a place she’s secured for herself since she was 17 in my humble opinion—in these times when millennials are drawn to easier hugot lines or swearing (Apple does both in Fetch, albeit artfully and intelligently). The DIY harmonies and unconventional song arrangements which lean more towards spoken word, chanting and rapping than solely crooning verses only accentuate Apple’s haunting dark vocals which can effortlessly vacillate from being soft and tender at one moment to raspy, harsh and frantic the next. Think Rachel Yamagata on crack or a more sober Yoko Ono circa Plastic Ono Band days.

Fiona Apple

The album’s title track, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” is largely in spoken word and seems to be Apple’s rumination on how critics have ostracized her since her speech upon accepting the MTV Video Music Award for Best New Artist in 1997 in which she said that “the world is bullshit,” encouraging fans to be true to themselves and to not model their lives after what their idols considered cool and fashionable. Her equally infamous onstage meltdown due to sound and technical problems in 2000 pretty much cemented her reputation in the media as this “crazy lady” whose private life almost always took the spotlight over her art. “And you’ve got them all convinced / That you’re the means and the end / All the VIPs and PYTs and wannabes / Afraid of not being your friend… They stole my fun,” goes her Dylanesque drawl before breaking into a chorus with a meowing Cara Delevingne. It’s a pretty simple song about finding one’s bearings and breaking free from your past or other people’s misguided perceptions of you. It ends with dogs barking to a self-empowered lyric and an homage to Kate Bush (“I need to run up that hill / I will, I will, I will”), one of Apple’s biggest and most evident musical influences, I believe. Along the same narrative of being bullied and facing one’s insecurities is the preceding track, “Shameika,” which Apple says was inspired by a significant moment in middle school. She wanted to fit in with the cool girls but her OCD didn’t help and made her feel more like an outcast (“I used to march down the windy, windy sidewalks / Slapping my leg with a riding crop / Thinking it made me come off so tough / I didn’t smile, because a smile always seemed rehearsed / I wasn’t afraid of the bullies, and that just made the bullies worse”). One day, a tough, presumably black girl in school approached her and told her to stop trying to fit in because she, in fact, “had potential.” The song has a quirky, catchy rhythm that complements this anecdote from adolescence perfectly. As much as “Shameika” relates Apple’s life-long struggle with self-esteem, more importantly, it embarks on exploring inter-female relationships, which is a recurring theme in the album.

Three other songs, in particular, touch upon said relationships in varying tones of seriousness and feeling set against very different and yet interconnected contexts. “Newspaper” is the epitome of empathy between women, specifically of one towards the woman her ex is currently involved with. The lines, “I wonder what lies he’s telling you about me / To make sure that we’ll never be friends / And it’s a shame because you and I didn’t get a witness… We were cursed the moment that he kissed us / From then on, it was his big show” hint at the man’s egoism and possible abuse of the women in such a relatable way that it inspires as well as aspires to change the tired virgin-whore dichotomy in mainstream music (Taylor Swift’s “You Belong with Me,” Paramour’s “Misery Business,” Alanis Morisette’s “You Oughta Know,” to name a few), cinema, television and other cultural media. Although lighter and funnier, similar vibes run through “Ladies” (“There’s a dress in the closet / Don’t get rid of it, you’d look good in it / I didn’t fit in it, it was never mine / It belonged to the ex-wife of another ex of mine”). The third track about female connections, though, is anything but light despite its childlike melody accompanied by a chorus of women singing along with Apple. Aptly titled “For Her,” she says that this was written for a woman who was raped by a big shot in the film industry. The bridge of the song in which Apple shrieks, “Good mornin’! Good mornin’ / You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in” is easily one of the most powerful lyrics I have ever had to privilege to come across.

Apple’s undeniable sense of humor also shines in “Rack of His” (most likely punning a woman’s rack, i.e. breasts), a track that sounds a lot like her 2005 record, Extraordinary Machine, if I may add. Here, she grumbles about men objectifying and taking advantage of women in love with them for their own gratification, about internalized misogyny when a woman feels like she needs a man’s approval and how she arrives at an epiphany by turning her scars into art (“And I’ve been used so many times / I’ve learned to use myself in kind / I try to drum, I try to write… ‘Cause I know how to spend my time”). She radiates the same energy in “Drumset,” which is essentially a song about rejection.

My personal favorites, however, are the angriest, those that flash the most defiant middle finger to the ruling class and their apologists. “Under the Table” begins with an R&B tune (“I would beg to disagree / But begging disagrees with me”), reminiscent of Tidal’s, before Apple goes on a confrontational dialogue with somebody who stifles her from calling out another person “when they say something that starts to make her simmer.” The song manages to balance angst, contempt and sarcasm (“Kick me under the table all you want / I won’t shut up…I’d like to buy you a pair of pillow-soled hiking boots / To help you with your climb / Or rather, to help the bodies that you step over along your route / So they won’t hurt like mine”) that could only have been mastered by a child from Generation X. The next track, “Relay,” is inspired by the 2018 Kavanaugh hearings as well as Apple’s personal journey towards forgiveness and justice since being raped by a stranger when she was 12. She reflects on the cycle of elitist bigotry and violence (“And I see that you keep trying to bait me / And I’d love to get up in your face / But I know if I hate you for hating me / I will have entered the endless race”) and how it should end by exposing the guilty and holding them accountable. Its martial verses, “I resent you for being raised right / I resent you for being tall / I resent you for never getting any opposition at all / I resent you for having each other / I resent you for being so sure / I resent you presenting your life like a fucking propaganda brochure” are proof of Apple’s lyrical brilliance at its most playful and progressive.

Overall, the fiery spirit of the album is offset by Apple’s familiar emotional vulnerability in “Cosmonauts” and “Heavy Balloon.” The former weighs in on the jadedness of an idealistic long-term monogamous relationship while the latter, I feel, is what depression and anxiety would sound like if it were a song, especially around the part where Apple sings huskily, “I spread like strawberries / I climb like peas and beans / I’ve been sucking it in so long / That I’m busting at the seams.” It’s the kind of narrative on mental health that’s as haunting as it is comforting and empowering in its collective bid for understanding—an unspoken cry for help, if you will. What makes the record even more special is the contextual chronology that frames the tracks. It begins with “I Want You to Love Me,” whose title practically sums up its intention, seducing listeners with Apple’s recognizable fingers on the piano. “I’ve waited many years / Every print I left upon the track / Has led me here… And while I’m in this body / I want somebody to want” then escalates into a frenzy with her crooning hoarsely and tediously over the piano’s tumultuous racket, conveying both ecstasy and pain as if sharing a synchronized orgasm with the instrument. The song summons a dreamy state as if running through the woods in one of David Hamilton’s photographs before it strikes you in the head with the sounds of discord and rage in the 12 songs thereafter. What a strong first track! The final one, “On I Go,” on the other hand, has been called “weak” by some critics—male ones, not surprisingly—but I don’t find it to be the case. Who says that a finale needs fireworks? Who says that songs should follow strict pop structures? The fact that Apple ends with a track in which she chuckles while messing up the lyrics, and not fixing it, reinforces the album’s message of fury and nonchalant thoughtfulness. Apple recites, “On I go, not toward or away / Up until now it was day, next day / Up until now in a rush to prove / But now I only move to move” almost like a mantra as her voice calms and disappears. She clearly does not give a fuck.

The entire discourse in Fetch makes it undeniably one of the most authentic and impactful masterpieces to ever reach a global listenership in a long time. There are a few throwback moments evocative of Apple’s past records, but Fetch possesses a sound entirely its own. It communicates raw, honest emotions that are not dressed in idealism or romance if only to please mainstream sensibilities. There’s anger, there’s madness, there’s joy even. And buried underneath is also a sense of contentment—the acceptance that the world is, indeed, pure bullshit, but that you just have to “go with yourself,” echoing the exact same piece of advice that she once gave at 17, stammering, holding an MTV Moonman trophy, her voice shaking, her eyes wider than they are now. She was right all along.

In a pandemic-afflicted world where fascism and misogyny still reign supreme, markedly so in the Philippines and other Third World countries, this record’s release was well-timed. In our isolation, without the hubbub of road traffic, the noise of noontime shows before live audiences and the commotion of everyday life in general, there is a heightening of the senses. We are forced to see what were often overlooked, to hear the sounds and voices that matter, to discern that the “normal” we were so accustomed to was everything that was wrong in the first place. Through Fetch the Bolt Cutters, Apple only gives us a bite of her unfiltered consciousness. As if heeding my prayers, she has blessed me with another cathartic playlist that corresponds to my current mood: this renewed restlessness, this insatiable, rebellious craving to be free. “Fetch the bolt cutters. We’ve been in here too long,” indeed. #

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Fiona Apple’s Art of Radical Sensitivity,

The Story Behind Every Track on Fetch the Bolt Cutters,