Genre-bending political satire with a clowning, catchy soundtrack
Though (or, through) bearing all the stereotypical trademarks of several Filipino film genres, Mike De Leon's Kakabakaba Ka Ba? (1980) might be the most original Filipino film of all time, certainly the most original of its era. Still under Martial Law, progressive Filipino filmmakers had to go the extra creative mile to sidestep censorship, which they had done so with the allegorical, social-realist melodrama. Stepping away from the form that he and his accomplished peers (Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal) had become known for, De Leon mixes the campiest elements of Filipino musical, comedy, crime and action flicks, "bomba" films and even science fiction into an amusing satire that stands apart from his darker films like Batch '81 and Kisapmata.
It's an unlikely vehicle for a political allegory about imperialist domination of the Philippines and the Catholic church's complicit role. It works because it's as scathing as it is silly, apparent from the half-serious disclaimers opening the film stating that it is purely fictional (of course it is - which, then, suggests that maybe it isn't).
Interesting watching Filipinos turn the table, stereotyping and mocking other nationalities (and ourselves) for once. A bumbling Japanese Yakuza fails on three separate occasions to smuggle contraband past Philippine customs at the airport. On his latest attempt - a cassette tape laced with opium - he slips the booty into Christopher De Leon's jacket, who then slides through customs unchecked. Things get interesting for De Leon and his three buddies (Charo Santos, Jay Ilagan and Sandy Andolong) as they discover they are being spied on and followed. Everyone from the Yakuza, the Chinese mafia and even the Catholic church are all trying to get their hands on the tape. The conspiracy? A plot to use opium, distributed through communion hosts during mass, to turn the FIlipino people into docile subjects under foreign control (isn't this already happening, but without the drugs?).
The funny title is colloquially untranslatable into English, though its been loosely translated as Does Your Heart Beat Faster? or Are You Nervous? Much of the humor, I suspect, is also untranslatable in all its glorious cornball mannerisms and wit. Every outrageous scene, whether a flock of nuns breaking into song and dance (more than a decade before Sister Act) or the climactic Broadway-inspired number, is well-timed, the satire never losing its aim. Plus, the soundtrack goes hard (is there an official Original Soundtrack release for this film? somebody hook me up!).
As much as we love to sing and dance, and as much as we're struggling to get free, you'd think there would be stacks upon stacks of quality Filipino films that reflect both realities. Nope. There are many escapist musicals and comedies and many political dramas, but Kakabakaba Ka Ba? is the only one of its kind - a political musical satire - which, at first glance is a surprise knowing that it's a Mike De Leon film. Then again, knowing De Leon's cynicism and reputation as the "dark genius" of Philippine cinema, perhaps only he could've pulled it off.
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