Vilma Santos

The longest-reigning Queen of Philippine Cinema, also widely known as the Star for All Seasons and the QueenStar, Vilma Santos celebrates her golden anniversary in showbiz. She has starred in more than 200 films and has given the public some of the most memorable performances in Philippine motion picture history. An icon of film and popular culture, her magnetic screen presence has captured the hearts and minds of generations of Filipinos. Her enduring charisma and popularity have made her filmdom's most durable female superstar. CLICK HERE TO READ MORE

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Friday, September 6, 2013

Vilma Santos shines as extra (A Review of The Bit Player / Ekstra)

By Randy Renier I. Espinoza, Aug. 11, 2013

Vilma Santos is a screen legend and the country’s Star for All Seasons, whose career trajectory spans 50 years of playing lead roles which earned her box-office and critical successes. To cast her as an extra or bit player in a movie is almost unthinkable. Can she pass off as a bit player and effectively evoke the nuances of the role? Well, Ekstra (The Bit Player), the actress’s first foray into indie filmmaking, provides a more-than-adequate answer.

Directed by acclaimed director Jeffrey Jeturian, Ekstra opens with scenes showing the character of Loida Malabanan (played by Vilma Santos) getting rejected for a house-help part for a soap opera production. The film officially starts when, one late night, she receives a booking for possible bit parts in another soap opera. She then prepares her costumes and things and, hours past midnight, with a co-extra friend in tow, heads for the meeting place for all the talents, from which a service van picks them up to transport them to the location shoot. Along the way, we get snippets, by way of humorous banters, of the talents’ struggles as industry workers, while the talent coordinator has to drop off along the highway two child talents, with their respective parents, who don’t fit the roles of young Piolo Pascual and Marian Rivera, the soap’s lead stars.

As the van reaches its destination, we get to see the talents’ working conditions. They have no specified place to stay at and have to find their own space, even if it means pitching a make-shift tent and mingling with nearby animals. While the big stars and powers-that-be eat good food in comfortable quarters, the bit players have to contend with the bland taste of rationed food. If worse comes to worst, there can even be food shortage.

As the narrative unfolds, we see talents being scolded at and one talent fainting during a scene because of fatigue and because she missed breakfast. Amid subhuman circumstances, though, they are constantly reminded to be always on the go, ready, alert, and performing according to what is expected of them, in order to not waste precious time and camera reel. Loida is even told by the wardrobe coordinator, who hands her a costume dress when she clinches a role as a double, “Oh, ingatan mo ‘yan…mas mahal pa sa 'yo ‘yan.” Though it may sound exaggerated, it highlights how low the industry people look at these workers. 

Despite harsh conditions, just like ordinary Filipinos, these workers tough it out, make the most of it, and even have the humor to laugh at their own circumstances and enjoy while working. They swoon over the good looks of Piolo Pascual and are fond of picture taking. To them, no job is too tough if their life depends on it. Thus they will endure the hardships, even if it means having prosthetics on their body for long hours, only to be told that their scene has been postponed at a later time.

The travails of the lowly bit player is most succinctly encompassed in the character of Loida. She gets lucky to land three roles:  sakada (sugarcane plantation worker), housemaid, double for Eula Valdez. But her landing those roles is no mean feat. It doesn’t happen every day. It’s a product of luck and wanting to get the parts badly. She has to compete with her best friend in a showdown during a mini audition to get the housemaid part, and she has to endure, as a stand-in, getting gagged, slapped, kicked, and burned by way of a cigarette butt. All because she needs the money for her daughter’s tuition. And perhaps also because she still hopes that these small parts will lead her to bigger roles.

Her winning streak ends, though, when she botches an otherwise important role, that of an attorney. After a series of blunders, she gets the ire of the director and ends up being scolded in front of everybody and escorted out of the scene. As a consolation for the embarrassment that she has been subjected to, and also perhaps because she needs money, the talent coordinator gives her a crowd part in the party scene.

The film reaches its denouement the morning of the following day as Loida gets off a jeep, walks towards her home, gives her daughter the balance for her tuition, prepares her hot bath, eats the leftover food from the shoot, while thinking about the events of the past 24 hours of work. The final scene shows Loida in a birthday party at a coworker friend’s house, being asked about her reported big part. As she watches the scene that she blew, with a different talent doing her part, she struggles to contain her frustration, embarrassment, and pain.
Turning the spotlight on the unsung industry workers

Ekstra is a dramedy that is an unabashed satire on the exploitative nature of the TV and movie industry. It exposes how market forces compel network executives and directors to practice cost-effective measures, resulting in the unfair treatment of talents, the lowest in the hierarchy of production staff. It is a biting commentary on the harsh realities of these unsung industry workers, how the system exploits their willingness to work for meager pay under subhuman conditions. The film can even be viewed as an analogy for the larger society, and the bit players are the lower-class citizens who could barely make a living.

The film triumphs via a tight and coherent script that is replete with humor and, at the same time, poignant moments. The screenplay writers – Zig Dulay, Antoinette Jadaone, and Jeffrey Jeturian – deserve kudos for their masterful handling of the material, neat sequencing of events, and witty dialogues. They are able to interpose the issues of ratings and TV advertising that influence how soaps are produced, most notably shown in a scene where the entire production design is ludicrously done in the shade of blue because one of their major advertisers is GSM Blue.

One of Jeturian’s best films

Extra demonstrates Jeturian’s penchant for the theme of exploitation, which he has tackled in his previous films, such asTuhog, which examines how a rape victim’s story is twisted by filmmakers and turned into a titillating material, and Bikini Open, a look at how pageant contestants are compelled by economic forces to let themselves get manipulated by pageant organizers.

The film showcases Jeturian’s use of humor as an element that lends irony to the issues that he’s putting forward. Instead of presenting an issue explicitly, as he did in Kubrador, this time he uses comedy in talking about the issues of oppression and exploitation, thus resulting in a satire. The film is reminiscent of the director’s treatment of humor in such films as Bikini Open and Bridal Shower. One cannot help seeing an affinity between Jeturian and the late National Artist Ishmael Bernal, who also exhibited his sense of humor in his Working Girls movies, among others.

Although it lacks the technical sophistication and innovative storytelling of Tuhog, Ektra ranks as one of Jeturian’s best films, alongside Tuhog and Kubrador. Its effective use of both comedy and drama to delineate its narrative and convey its message is an accomplishment on its own. A rare feat that only skillful filmmakers can achieve.

Vilma Santos shines

The selling point of the film, though, is Vilma Santos. Not only because she is its lead star. It’s more because, contrary to some people’s claims that she doesn’t want to look old and deglamorized onscreen, she proves that, more than being a popular movie star, she is an artist who is not afraid to take risks, experiment, and stretch her limits. Largely typecast in glamorous middle-class/upper-class women roles throughout most of her career, she is not new to deglammed roles, especially during the latter decades. She has played roles which required her to take off some makeup and show her real age:  a liberated mother in Bata, Bata, Paano Ka Ginawa?; an OFW in Anak; an old-fashioned librarian in In My Life. But her Loida Malabanan is by far the most deglammed she has ever been. Sans makeup, wearing oversized clothes, with wrinkles and sagging skin showing, looking haggard even, Santos breathes life to her role as an aging bit player. With Jeturian’s competent direction, Santos is able to look and act the part and to give a never-before-seen performance. She is Loida Malaban through and through.

Santos’s Loida is a testament to her versatility and wide range as an actress. She shines in another career-defining performance as a bit player without making extra efforts to stand out, but by blending with the crowd and acting as one of them, sharing the scenes with them and giving them the opportunity to do their parts. The film gives Santos the chance to show her great comedic timing, which moviegoers had the opportunity to see in In My Life. Her best moments, though, involve quiet dramatic scenes that require no dialogue:  being scolded by the director and escorted out; silently in pain, after being scolded, while a co-talent comes to her to give her the party dress that she’s going to wear for a scene; coming home, listless, and eating leftover food, while thinking about what happened at work; watching her botched attorney part being portrayed by a different talent, holding in her swelling tears. 
Now it can be told, Santos can do what Nora Aunor can do. She has encroached on a territory which has always been, until now, known to be only owned by Aunor. Vilma can now play roles that represent marginalized groups. She has been an outsider looking in and joining advocacy groups: a nun marching with laborers, a militant mother of two who works in an NGO, a politicized mother who later joins a rally. Now she can be one of them, a veritable member of these groups, who experiences first-hand the oppression and injustice. Unlike Santos, though, Aunor still has to prove she can do light comedy and can give justice to roles outside of her comfort zone.

Santos is backed by an outstanding ensemble cast led by Rubi Ruiz as the strict but compassionate talent coordinator, Marlon Rivera as the short-tempered director, Vincent de Jesus as the witty assistant director, and Tart Carlo as the comical best friend of Loida.


Ekstra bagged six awards at the recently concluded Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film festival, including Special Jury Prize, Netpac (Network for Promotion of Asian Cinema) Special Award, Audience Choice Award, and Best Actress. It also was the festival’s top grosser. Star Cinema is releasing the film for nationwide screening starting on August 14. Whether it will emerge as the top-grossing Pinoy indie film in history remains to be seen.

Set to premier globally at the Toronto International Film Festival and with invitations from other film festivals, the film might just score international citations. Foreign audiences might not be able to relate to some of the humor and the references to Filipino film icons mentioned in the film, but there will surely be audiences that will be receptive to and appreciative of the film's message and its star's strong performance.

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