Lilia Cuntapay (playing herself) has spent decades in obscurity as an extra in horror movies, playing ghouls or aswang and all manner of hideous creature. Now, she’s been nominated for an acting award. This faux-documentary follows her as she prepares for the ceremony. She gets herself a dress, solicits advice from the people around her, and prepares an acceptance speech that gets longer everyday. And she continues to live the life of a professional extra, existing on the fringes of celebrity, clinging to triumphs even as tragedy moves in.
The film provides no distinction between what’s real and what’s not. It puts together an intriguing mélange of both, letting each intrude into the other. It’s a really interesting form that has risen in the country over the last few years, and one that we seem to be particularly suited to. This film, and others like it, reflects the country’s complicated relationship with the truth and reality. The Lilia Cuntapay of this movie has crafted a grand embellishment that enhances and uplifts her modest life. But even in this delusion of grandeur, the film presents the hints of truth that make the lie so compelling.
But the film’s pleasures are much more basic than its metatextual content. The fact is, the film is funny and heartwarming, skillfully telling a story of a lovely, fascinating woman finally being given her due. It weaves in glimpses of the absurdity of a career in show business, and fully explores the consequences of the pursuit of fame. But what’s most astounding is that the movie is as much a celebration of show business. It gets in its hits, but there's little spite. How can be there be spite when it is the business that gave us this remarkable woman?
And that’s the key to all this. The very heart and soul of this movie is its star, the wonderful Lilia Cuntapay. Just as it is in the movie, there aren’t really many opportunities for Ms. Cuntapay to get lead roles. This is a shame, because we are depriving ourselves of the warmth that she can bring to a movie. She carries history with her wherever she goes, and in this movie, the lines on her face hint at her awareness of the truth of her situation. And when she lets the act fall away, when the performance ends, she delivers heartbreaking reality with no pretense or vanity.
Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay is a film that I personally recommend. It is a film that I will be recommending to people for years to come. Beyond the fact that it’s funny and smart and well made, I feel that it is representative of everything that I dream of for the new Filipino cinema. It recognizes the past while still moving towards the future, telling stories in a form that resonates with the national psyche. It has a sharp wit, but it never forgets to draw from something deeply personal. And it’s hopeful, finding the joy in an existence as absurd as our own. Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay is one of my favorite films of all time. I hope it could be one of yours, as well.