Sunday, August 7, 2011

Christian Bautista's "A Special Symphony" - Falsely Maneuvering Schmaltz

Christian Bautista is a demigod in Indonesia. He is as much a household name in this nation of 150-million souls as he is in the Philippines, thus should be a source of national pride. This month, he topbills an Indonesian movie, something that he wasn't able to penetrate in his native land with enviable success (he did "Mano Po 5: I Love You" and is in post-prod for Dante Nico Garcia's "Mrs. Recto" with Regine Velasquez). This International outing is called "A Special Symphony" (as per translation from Bahasa). Its international title is even more telling: "Jayden's Choir".

Jayden Ruiz (Bautista) is a struggling Filipino musician who can't quite penetrate the legitimate music scene. In one of his gigs, he ends up getting thrown a bevy of disposable objects in a dingy beer joint. Without a better option to speak of, Jayden's aunt sends him to Jakarta to live with Marlina (Ira Wibowo), his biological mother, an Indonesian who 20 years ago left Manila. Jayden reluctantly agrees with the plan while he's trying to find purpose. He meets his mother's new family, including a perky and optimistic little sister. In the process, he's offered a job with the "special children" - to teach music; a noble task that's doubly daunting as he hardly speaks the vernacular.

Despite some belligerent forces envious of Jayden's sudden popularity, he succeeds in organizing a choir with more than respectable marks. But a choir competition against "normal kids" is a different matter altogether. Will Jayden's little club of "misfits" make the grade? Guess.

I was pretty thrilled to watch this. If you're familiar with some new wave flicks from Indonesia like Asun Mawardi's "Untukmu" ("For You", 2003), Riri Riza's "The Dreamer" and its sequel, "Laskar Pelangi" ("Rainbow Troop", 2009), then you'd understand. I was rushing to the cinema because of the delectable hopefulness of the aforementioned pictures. I needed a dose of "feel good". This had all the promise.

Unfortunately, there's more to making movies than mere good intentions. Skill in storytelling is a requisite. The movie is pretty much written for Bautista who tries very hard to make the grade, but on the whole, he's pulled down by the material that's too artificially orchestrated (no pun intended). Moreover, he is besieged by a literal characterization that hardly bears insight. It didn't help either that the flick had set its sight on Glee-style ministrations. With a script riddled with loopholes and sudden, nay calculable twists, the narrative feels lazy and, well, artificial.

To start with, when Jayden arrives in Jakarta, we see a tormented soul. He mopes, he's dismissive, he's rough and unshaven, and he never smiles - even to the point of rudeness to his hospitable hosts. The day after Jayden shaves his facial hair, he suddenly transforms into a prince charming! His smile gleams in Cimmerian shade. His swagger confident. This is a different man. In fact, traffic stops when he walks down the school corridor. The children's mothers swoon and forget themselves. Didn't I tell you Christian aka Jayden is a demigod in Indonesia? His transformation is easily jumpstarted by his trip to the shaving room. See what a bit of grooming can do?

Though Jayden plays a mean guitar and sings up a storm, he hardly speaks Bahasa so how can he adequately teach music? And to children with special needs at that? Simple, a co-teacher assists him in translating every English word that comes out of his kissable lips. Viable? Why not give the rein to the teacher who speaks the language? Remember once again: we're dealing with children suffering from intellectual and developmental crutches. In fact, in no scene do we see a moment where teacher Jayden intimately connects with any of his students. His participation in the choir might as well be hearsay.

The coherence and narrative progression leave much to be desired. Consider this: While scouring for a male lead singer for the choir, his co-teacher inadvertently hears autistic Zaky belting a local song while in the comforts of his toilet seat. But when they take him in front of the class for his audition, he - errr - sucked big time. Solution: They take a toilet bowl inside the classroom, then have Zaky sing on it. And he does so, with magical gusto!

Next scene: School program! Zaky stands beside the female lead Amelia singing to their heart's desire ( a beautiful song called "Kidung") - without the toilet seat! How were they able to get from A to Z? They conveniently forgot. There wasn't much scenes showing Jayden's methodology in churning out the impossible, and this is bewildering. Fast resolutions, indeed. We need these salient scenes to understand. How can we sympathize with their plight if we aren't witness to how hard they worked? They just went from interesting savants to overnight nightingales, as though there were strains in the story that were inexplicably edited out. There's a palpable case of disconnect, albeit with no believable progression. Everything felt too orchestrated to rally empathy.


Let's take the concluding scenes. Jayden, though initially barred from attending the contest, decides to show up - on the day he was to fly back to Manila. While the kids were winding down their number (a vapid interpretation of Lennon's "Imagine"), Jayden hastily departs to catch his flight. He arrives at Terminal 3 in a somber mood. He stands looking at the flight board. Then he turns around and - voila! - to his surprise, his whole gang of champions are standing in front of him, beaming with pride, clutching their trophy! How did they do that? This is Soekarno-Hatta's international pre-departure area where only departing passengers are allowed. For this to happen, they'd have to get permission from airport authorities which, by virtue of red tape, is close to impossible. Not in the matter of minutes they were able to catch their esteeamable teacher, that's for sure.

A more obvious debacle is how the children were able to catch Jayden at the airport, just before he departs. It takes an hour or more to get from Jakarta to the airport, and Jayden had a considerable headstart since he left even before the children finished their number. Moreover, a choir contest's awarding ceremonies should take time, right? And when they were declared winner (who could have guessed!) , did they suddenly decide to up and leave the contest hall? Common sense would probably have them celebrating right after the announcement; meet the children's parents (including Zaky's who didn't want Jayden there); summon the parents for a brisk departure - with all the children in tow. How did they get to the airport so fast? Was there a flying carpet nearby? It's nothing short of a mystery, if you ask me.

And making a scene at the airport? Milking emotion gets tacky when badly written. Talk about shameless schmaltz.

Most of the characters in the story are cartoon caricatures, Jayden's co-teachers particularly. Ira Wibowo, who plays Jayden's mother is classy and sympathetic (she's Berlin-born and does 2-3 movies a year in Indonesia). Jayden's lady co-teacher (we missed her name) is particularly pretty, but largely misdirected. Indonesia has some of the most beautiful actresses this side of Asia. Consider the recently shown "Empty Chair", Helfi Kardit's idiotic horror tale "Bangku Kosong".

Now let's get to the music. Director Awi Suryadi makes a great choice with his music director Ricky Lionardi who chooses Indonesian songs reeking with richly lilting, heart-warming melody. Fact is, the children's rival (who did a song-and-dance piece) performed better than their mediocre "Imagine". Christian Bautista's theme, "I'm Already King" (penned by Lionardi) is a gem likewise; it could have been a better piece than their winning number. Then there is the badly dubbed and out-of-sync numbers which should have been remedied. And for lack of better term, the vocal quality of these supposedly musically superior children is middling. That's the best Indonesia can offer? This is highly doubtful.

Though well intentioned, these gaffes take its toll on the viewers' sense of disbelief. "Laskar Pelangi" this isn't!

We wanted to like this movie very much. We failed.

"A Special Symphony" is also known as "Jayden's Choir"


I was just googling for the name of the pretty Indonesian actress when I found a link to a twitter piece that obviously referred to my review on "A Special Symphony". The account name: Delon Tio.

In it, Delon Teo tells my fellow blogger Richard Bolisay to remind me to "get the facts straight" in reference to my writing that the musical director's name is Ricky Lombardi, when it should be "Lionardi". Delon, honey, before you IMPOSE that I get my facts errr... "straight" in MY very own blog, which means I can write whatever gibberish I want to my heart's content, the appropriate idiom is actually "Get your facts right!" Geesh, correcting someone with the most awkward of English. Eww!

This blog is not a paid blog, thus I am not compelled to write down all the details in a movie we paid to see. Mistaking Lionardi for Lombardi does NOT make "A Special Symphony" a masterpiece; it doesn't rid this middling flick of its artistic failure. I PAID TO WATCH IT AND DID NOT LIKE IT. It's as plain as that! If you're a dingbat who readily espouses trite phrases like, "There are good reviews and there are bad reviews," then you should be aware that there are good films and there are bad films as well. This, obviously, belongs to the latter unless you have poor taste.

In the same thread, this twat remarks, "Not that I'm against bad reviews. But reviewers that try to find logics in movies shouldn't go to cinemas to find them. " Logics? Hahaha! People going to the cinema not expecting logic within a narrative are morons! You pay for a price and you don't expect stories to make sense? He further digs a hole for himself, "Rather than try to find logic, I'd rather look for magic in movies. There are already enough logics to deal with in everyday lives." Oh dear heavens, the brilliant reasoning!

You want magic, go to a magic show or a circus! Cinema has the duty to reflect reality and truth, unless the genre you're making is sci-fi, fantasy or the dime-a-dozen vomit-inducing horror flicks from Indonesia (like Teo's "Macabre", 2009). Is "Jayden's Choir" fantasy? Did Jayden fly on air with wizard brooms and magic wands? Did he suddenly transform into Optimus Prime? Was he injected with a serum that transformed him to an ape or a web slinger? I don’t think so. Unless we watched a different movie. The film is supposedly based on real events (i.e. special children with musical talent from Beijing). It wasn't about magical incantations the way you require your superior cinema, was it? Babaw huh!

And what's with "logics"? Gosh! It's a singular entity, my dear! Get your English right before espousing on what a good or bad review is! When you're advocating something, make sure it's a worthy cause, instead of something with mediocre artistry! What kind of filmmaker does not require logic in his work? Since Mr. Teo is a filmmaker (a producer, I think I have his "6:30" somewhere), it makes you sad and scared. This is the kind of producer that Asia has? Someone who doesn't think that logic should be part of a story?

Finally, last time I checked, it was my own money that paid for my movie ticket. Ergo, it is my consumer's prerogative to write how I really feel about it - the way I want to, regardless of its musical director being Lombardi or Leonardi! If Teo is not against bad reviews, I, on the otherhand, am allergic to people with poor taste. They repel me. I get hives listening to their uneven syllogism. Or should I say “logics”?

Acknowledgment: Thanks to Melissa Isakh for the correction on the musical director's name.


Melissa Isakh said...

Hi! I think the music director's name is Ricky Lionardi. already checked his work here

Cathy Pena said...

Thanks, Melissa. I appreciate the correction. He has an ear for richly melodic work.

wootsz said...

sir this is the summary of the movie?

Cathy Pena said...

@ wootsz:

Give it a read and I'm sure you can answer your question. And "Catherine" or "Cathy" can't be anything but a "Miss", not a "sir", dontcha think?