When it is a film that can illicit such contrasting feelings by so many people, it’s hard not to want to find out what all the fuss is about. That’s certainly the case for Viva Films and Darryl Yap’s Maid in Malacañang. Now, as a Filipino-American, I’m coming into this film knowing the basics of Philippine history, yet not having the personal experience to drive my feelings in any which way. So my thoughts in this review are of the film itself. And I think it’s important for anyone with an open mind to be able to watch things they agree with and don’t agree with. That interaction may even help to support your existing feelings of a topic.
Maid in Malacañang tells the story of the final days of the Marcos regime and the hours leading up to their exile from the Philippines. The film opens with eldest daughter Imee Marcos (Christine Reyes) being called back to the Philippines by the president (played by Cesar Montano) as efforts to overthrow Marcos and growing public discontent toward the family reach a boiling point. As the situation grows dire, the family must come to terms with the fact that their time in the Palace and in power is coming to an end.
The film chronicles those hectic final days filled with paranoia, desperation and somber resignation by the family and the Palace staff who remain loyal to them.
The film is, obviously, told from the family’s point of view. And will put them in a far favorable light than other films might. The concern before the film’s release was that it would be some kind of propagandic distortion of history that would somehow redeem or sanctify the Marcoses. From an outsider’s point of view though, the film actually doesn’t portray the family in the most perfect light. Nor does it condemn the family, of course. But the film is far from some sycophantic fantasy.
Instead, Maid in Malacañang narratively plays out like your typical Filipino family melodrama. You could swap in any Filipino teleserye family and it would be a familiar tale. The story of a family with parents and children each with their own goals, agendas, philosophies and priorities. Yet in the end, are united by love for each other and even self-preservation.
Setting aside any concerns of historical accuracy, (which can, has been and will be debated by people with more authority on such matters), the film actually does a pretty good job at being a character-focused story. And being fact or fiction doesn’t affect it being so.
Darryl Yap makes some interesting directorial choices in the film. Some of those choices help to enhance that character-focus. He utilizes long, continuous tracking shots in most of the film. Many scenes are reminiscent of the trademark “walk and talk” scenes from American TV series The West Wing. Scenes in this film have a single camera following characters through rooms and corridors, uninterrupted, from groups of people to one-on-ones.
For one thing, this filming style explains how the movie was filmed in a relatively short of amount of time.
But more importantly, the impression of long one-take scenes almost makes the film like a stage play. Cast members often recite their lines with noticeable stumbles and in a looser delivery, kind of like ad-libbing at times too. The “walk and talk” technique centers the focus on the characters and their words. And the cast are mostly up for the task.
Among that cast, the standouts are definitely Cristine Reyes and Ruffa Gutierrez.
Playing Imelda Marcos, Ruffa Gutierrez gets a sequence in which the First Lady admires her wardrobe and shoe collection. There is no dialogue, yet Ruffa Gutierrez, quite unexpectedly, conveys the necessary emotions in an effective and understated way. She delivers a quiet performance that might get much more positive attention in a different film and of a different subject.
Meanwhile, Christine Reyes takes charge as Imee Marcos. It’s quite obvious early on that she is the true star. That is, Christine Reyes for the film and Imee Marcos in the story. The now-senator is one of the film’s executive producers. And that certainly adds to the meta discussion of the film. But as a narrative, Imee is the film’s constant that connects each of its moving parts (namely, the chapters that break up the film).
Christine Reyes effectively brings the confident, yet frantic character to life. The Imee Marcos in the film is the kind of no-nonsense-type of character with a bravado you might see in a corporate-set K-drama. One that takes charge in a crisis, but has many obvious flaws that could derail the whole operation at any moment. Christine Reyes navigates the ups and downs of the character in the film with surprising ease.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth Oropesa, Beverly Salviejo and Karla Estrada portray the film’s titular maids. And often times, they bring the film’s unexpected humor to the tumultuous drama that surrounds it.
Admittedly, there are times the humor and drama are awkwardly positioned. And at a few points, even unnecessarily prolonging scenes that end up overstaying their welcome.
But the inclusion of humor is an interesting choice as it is obviously included to help endear the story to the audience, regardless of pre-film knowledge and opinion. And in the film’s climax, the seeds planted through the three maids’ scenes throughout the film, help to make for a legitimately exciting and strangely poetic sequence depicting the Marcoses finally leaving the Palace while their opponents storm the gates and reclaim their government.
It presents both sides in a way that does not pass judgement one way or the other. And rather than focusing merely on the situation at hand, the film turns the focus once again on the characters themselves and the relationship dynamics between them.
Where the film stumbles the most is in the way it is broken up into chapters and the inclusion of actual footage from news coverage and even documentaries.
First, the chapters break the film up into what are essentially vignettes of moments rather than a continuously flowing story. Though the overall narrative is held together by the focus on characters.
And then there’s the archival footage. It is an understandable technique in order to provide context while also avoiding the extra cost and effort needed to actually recreate those scenes. But those clips also feel shoehorned in and in the end almost unnecessary even. Especially when the film isn’t supposed to be a definitive historical record of the events of that time.
Some of the performances, despite clearly set purposes for each character in the narrative, definitely feel a bit stiff. That’s also part of what makes the film feel more like your typical local teleserye rather than a grand historical period piece.
On the other hand, the film doesn’t actually take itself too seriously. The aforementioned humor seeps into the more dramatic moments of the film. And in the end, almost feel like a wink and a nod to the viewer. And that’s to both supporters and detractors of the film’s subjects.
As a simple film, it’s not the best. But it’s also not some dangerous subversion. The great thing is that there are many other films that portray the opposite side of the spectrum as well. And not only in the last two years. But in the decades since the events being depicted first happened. Ultimately, taken at face value, Maid in Malacañang feels very familiar. There’s some interesting creative choices made in presentation. But its overall content isn’t too different from what you might see elsewhere and in other mediums. That said, the extra context by which this film exists does add much more to discuss. But that’s a whole other experience in and of itself.