CinemaOne Review: Maribel Legarda's MELODRAMA NEGRA is as entertaining as it is artificial
Melodrama Negra opens with three wandering ghosts (Gee Canlas, Gerald Napoles and Bong Cabrera), wondering what they need to do to move on. Through flashbacks, their respective lives, all of which are typical sob stories designed primarily to grant humanity to those who are no longer human, are revealed. Their deaths are conveniently connected to the individual stories of the film's living characters: an good-hearted thug (Gerhard Acao) who falls for a prostitute (Sheng Belmonte), a group of high school sociopaths (Nicco Manalo, Cindy Garcia, Ria Garcia) who stage the kidnapping of a congressman's son and his girlfriend, and their respective respectable parents who have hidden monstrosities. Legarda fervently weaves the stories together, crafting a light-hearted and mostly cinematic take on the innate darkness of humanity.
Eskrimadors director Kerwin Go turns cinematographer here, giving the material a palatable-enough look, appropriating for the material just enough polish to drown the bleakness. Myke Salomon's musical score gives the picture a likable upbeat feel. Overall, Melodrama Negra has the tone of a genuine crowd-pleaser. Its humor is amiable. Its drama is relatively efficient.
Legarda is clearly in the business of entertaining. However, it is that eagerness to entertain that bars the film from being nothing more than a well-crafted offbeat caper. The film's morbid impressions are nothing more than embellishments that serve the purpose of satisfying a curiosity or the need to be different. Its descent to the darkness of men feels false, unable to linger beyond the four corners of the darkened theater.
Melodrama Negra stands out when it doesn't overreach, when it remains grounded, exploring emotions and relationships that are elementarily human. It leaps when it bares the grief of a drag queen who laments his foster son's death through an impromptu ballad sung among friends. It flies when it exposes a sister's concern for her younger sister who is traumatized by their sexually abusive father. It radiates when it tells the blossoming romance between a misunderstood bodyguard and his master's favorite hooker. Unfortunately, these very human scenes are but half of the experience. The rest is enveloped in tolerable but ultimately forgettable artifice, the same artifice that can only work on stage, where the props, the acting, the lighting, and the sets are as large and as loud as the convolutions of Lopez's theater-bound material.
(Cross-published in Lessons from the School of Inattention.)