By Noel Vera
Directed by Sigrid Andrea Bernardo
I’M GUESSING the secret to Sigrid Andrea Bernardo’s success with Kita Kita — the surprise hit to the tune of P200 million in two weeks — turns on two things: 1.) She wasn’t looking to make the usual romantic comedy; and, 2.) Audiences were sick to death of the usual romantic comedy and wanted something else.
All that said, Ms. Bernardo wasn’t exactly trying to reinvent the wheel. Blind girl meets penniless man? Charlie Chaplin turned the idea into one of his most commercially successful comedies back in 1931 (arguably my favorite of his, for the record). Pretty woman with less-than-pretty man? Beauty and the Beast, 1740.
Ms. Bernardo does bring a few fairly fresh tricks to the party, like setting the story in Sapporo, capital of Hokkaido prefecture. Akira Kurosawa shot his adaptation of The Idiot in this province because of all the regions in Japan it most resembled Dostoevsky’s St. Petersburg best; possibly Ms. Bernardo’s biggest mistake is in not shooting in winter when the city is (I’m told) especially magical — the Snow Festival sculptures are as large as buildings, and if you take a train to the east coast you can watch ice drifting past the shoreline.
There’s still plenty of beauty in summer: the (as seen in the movie) toy-like town clock tower, the Fushimi Inari Shrine’s rows of scarlet torii gates, the brilliant flower fields of Biei.
Alessandra de Rossi’s Lea strides past everything on gangly fawn-like legs, her dark-coffee complexion and fresh-faced beauty the perfect contrast to all the primary colors. As her Romeo, Empoy Marquez’s Tonyo looks anything but with his oddly assembled head that says “comic relief” more than “romantic lead.”
But why should the movie’s romantic lead look like a romantic lead? Why can’t he be a schlub like the rest of us? Charlie Chaplin, Woody Allen, Dolphy — were they good-looking? The fact that the girl’s blind only makes the whole setup plausible, even if the story leading up to her disability — temporary blindness my ass — seems implausible.
What makes the whole picture sing is Ms. Bernardo simply locking down the camera and letting the two leads improvise: Mr. Marquez teasing and flirting, Ms. De Rossi responding with a slap or shove or startled shriek. The two actors are clearly enjoying each other’s company; all the director has to do is string the resulting footage together and — voila! Romantic comedy worth hundreds of millions in the box office.
It’s probably not as simple as all that. The director needs to know enough to put as little in the way of her actors as possible (the simple camera setups capturing the lovers’ interactions recall Chaplin) needs to know enough to listen to her independent filmmaker instincts rather than her commercial studio instincts (Oh wait a minute — she’s never directed a studio movie). She needs the deftness to introduce a homage to Disney’s Lady and the Tramp — Lea and Tonyo eating noodles together — without anyone being the wiser and still make the scene work, comically and romantically.
Perfectly possible that Ms. Bernardo didn’t have her actors improvise, that the lovers’ scenes together were as carefully scripted and choreographed as any Hong Kong martial arts fight sequence. The trick then is to make it all seem spontaneous despite all that precision — no easy feat.
With the movie’s second half (skip this paragraph if you plan to watch) Ms. Bernardo needs to introduce a jaw-dropping plot twist, a straight out-of-nowhere accident that changes all (I admit to checking my watch and wondering: What else is there to add to this story?). Turns out the director, having finished sketching the bold outlines of Lea’s love story, is scribbling in textures, shadings, nuances; three-dimensional life in effect. We learn of a less savory side to Tonyo, his creepy stalker side as he follows Lea to her job as tour guide, comes home to play her unhappy role as neglected girlfriend. We learn a reason why (other than Lea’s beauty) Tonyo would want to approach her, a reason why (other than Lea’s blindness) Tonyo would be bold enough to even consider approaching her. Do we forgive Tonyo for the stalking? I mostly did.
I liked the picture. I bought the premise (despite the “temporary” crap), bought the unlikely couple — bought them because they were so unlikely — bought the somewhat controversial second half because beyond the sunshine and fun there has to be a flip side, for balance.
And when in the movie’s closing sequence Lea puts on a blindfold it’s like something out of The Karate Kid (okay I don’t exactly remember him ever putting on a blindfold but) — she’s alone in this scene and she needs to get that specific set of thoughts and feelings back, however, she can. I can relate to that.
MTRCB Rating: PG