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One of the biggest compliments Filipino director Soxie Topacio gets on his new film, Grandpa Is Dead (Ded na si Lolo), is that it looks so real.
"Everyone keeps coming up to me and saying that," the director said. This low-budget family comedy was shot in just six days, the same amount of time the family in the story has to grieve over the death of their patriarch, Juanito Hernandez.
The film begins with Juanito's family members receiving the news that he has died. This starts a chain reaction of fainting, which the youngest family member, Bobet (11-year-old actor B.J. Forbes), just doesn't understand. But the fainting is a tradition -- one of many rituals and superstitions of grieving a loved one's death that Topacio portrays in his film, spoken entirely in Tagalog.
"My mother was like that, my uncle was like that, I was like that," Topacio says, laughing.
Over the course of a six-day wake, the adult children uncover their parents' major secret, which then helps them heal old wounds. It's clear that the film has a special significance for Topacio, who says the backbone of this story is its autobiographical nature; Bobet represents who he was as a boy, watching his family as they grieved the loss of their patriarch.
But in every adult-oriented family film, there must be a dress-wearing son. From the moment Junee (Roderick Paulate) sashays down the dark Manila street where his family lives and up to his father's casket in a bright red evening gown, he steals the show. Watching this movie, you expect Junee's character, a gay man dressed as a woman who sells, um, "happiness," to be annoyingly over-the-top, but thankfully he isn't. In fact, Junee is the one shouting the voice of reason over and alongside his fainting sisters, in a warm, familiar tone that makes him endearing throughout the film.
Paulate, Topacio says, is one of the Philippines' most recognizable
faces, despite being out as a gay man for decades. Like his film
siblings (Dick Israel, Elizabeth Oropesa, Gina Alajar, and Manilyn
Reynes), Paulate has starred in dozens of television shows in the
Philippines, giving this small film the star power it needed to get the
attention it has garnered.
And now it's the country's official submission for consideration when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences selects the nominees for Best Foreign-Language Film. From a pool that includes Grandpa Is Dead and 64 other films, only five will be chosen. But the local success has been what's mattered so much to Topacio.
"We set out to only show the film for one week," Topacio says. But the movie was such a sensation that it stayed in theaters for eight weeks. "We did not expect that at all."