Most famous for the several short films which displayed a very casual understanding of the idiosyncrasies of Filipino life without relying heavily on cheap charms, Antoinette Jadaone has been regarded by the late Alexis Tioseco as the person that is most qualified to give Filipino mainstream filmmaking that much-needed burst of novel inspiration. Tioseco's observations are very much valid, considering that Jadaone's shorts are all tightly packaged confections that marry the popular appeal of mainstream escapist entertainment and the unique wit of more adventurous fare. The only concern remaining is whether or not Jadaone can replicate and sustain the irresistible charms of her short films in a feature length film. Fortunately, Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay is more than enough proof that she can.
Lilia Cuntapay, the film's endearing subject, is the perennial extra, playing nameless characters in various films. Perhaps because of her distinctly memorable features, she has been type-casted to play hags or ghosts in horror films. Cuntapay is actually most famous for having a face that is easier to recall than her name. Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay springs from that unique fame of Cuntapay, opening with a montage of popular actors and directors who have all worked with Cuntapay who can't seem to recall who Lilia Cuntapay is, until Peque Gallaga, who discovered Cuntapay while shooting one of the episodes of Shake Rattle & Roll 2 (Gallaga and Lore Reyes, 1990), breaks the name's supposed unfamiliarity to describe Cuntapay's strange appeal.
Set in a fictional scenario wherein Cuntapay gets a very surprising nomination as Best Supporting Actress, a filmmaker (played by Jadaone) ventures into Cuntapay's neighborhood to document Cuntapay's life a few days prior to the awards night. The film follows Cuntapay as she goes to work to play another nameless role for a television melodrama, or as she excitedly sets up a viewing event for her first-ever interview for a popular primetime news program, or as she tearfully recounts her memorable past few days to her stepdaughter who lives in Canada.
Despite the numerous humorous depictions of a woman who has always settled to be in the fringes of an industry whose main currency is popularity, the film remains a very human portrait of Cuntapay, who suddenly finds herself in the brink of her long-ambitioned recognition. Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay succeeds not only because it seamlessly merges fact and fiction or because it manages to tackle a personality who exists in the margins of Filipino pop culture within a context of absolute familiarity but because it is genuinely touching. As the film reveals Cuntapay's other sides, as longing mother to an absentee stepdaughter, as dutiful mentor to her patient assistant (Geraldine Villamil), as a beloved and loving neighbor, it graduates from merely being just a witty and hilarious satire into something more worthwhile, more enduring.
Jadaone may have just made the quintessential Filipino underdog movie. Cuntapay is in fact the quintessential Filipino underdog. She struggles in a world of pretty faces, supple breasts, and pleasant gestures, despite the fact that she is the epitome of the complete opposite of what her world values the most. She is someone to be rooted for, not exactly to be given the fame and fortune luckier talents would normally aim for but only to be recognized, to be given a permanent place in that world she has devoted her life and uniqueness to but cannot give the same devotion to her. Jadaone's film, rooted in that fantasy that someone who has persisted for so long like Lilia Cuntapay may actually cross-over to be pitted against established and talented actresses in a glittery awards ceremonies, is a heartfelt tribute to each and every person who dared to dream dreams as big (and probably far-fetched) as the ones dreamt by Lilia Cuntapay.
(Cross-published in Lessons from the School of Inattention.)