One of the specialties of Silk Screen Asian American Film Festival -- continuing through May 19 -- is showing films from the seldom-seen middle tier of Asian film industries.
Though they labor in the shadows of international film powers like Japan and South Korea, the Philippines, in particular, seems to have developed a vibrant film culture all its own. An excellent example of this, "The Coin Bearer" will be shown on May 16 and 17 at Melwood Screening Room in Oakland.
"The Coin Bearer" is about a family that makes its living from the curious practice of "sakla," a gambling card game that's legal only during a wake. It's a way for families to raise money for the expenses of the deceased, so the authorities (mostly) look the other way.
This slight window of opportunity can be used and abused, as brothers Makoy and Abet find out. They find unclaimed bodies in the Manila slums to use as fronts for gambling rings masquerading as wakes. Corrupt cops, competitors and more "wakes" than they can handle put the young brothers' scheme to the test.
Executive producer J.D. Beals, an American, found himself involved in Filipino cinema the old-fashioned way -- through marriage.
"My parents divorced when I was young, and my father remarried a Filipina when I was still a child," Beals says. "I am white, but I grew up immersed in the culture of the Philippines. My wife is also Filipina, and in 2008 she and I traveled to the Philippines for vacation. While touring her alma mater, we received word that her former classmates were screening their freshman film, 'Huling Pasada' (The Final Stop), to a group of students. ... I was quite moved by the story. The heart and tenacity that was put into the production inspired me.
"These guys faced down every obstacle that came their way, and it forced me to face my inner demons for the first time, that day. I no longer had an excuse that I was willing to live with for not having a completed film. I knew at that moment that I wanted to make films with that group of guys. Their passion and work ethic was infectious."
They came to the unusual subject through the director, Paul Santa Ana.
"Paul shared with me a treatment written by his friend Obet Villela called 'Balasador' (The Dealer) about the life of a 'sakla' card dealer," Beals says. "Obet's father was a 'sakla' card dealer and Obet grew up around the games. I was drawn to the story because it was fresh, daring and unfamiliar."
Their budget was probably less than what an average Hollywood movie spends on catering. Yet, there's growing support for filmmaking in Manila, and many costs are quite low.
"As a long-time aspiring American filmmaker, the obvious difference between making a film in Manila as opposed to America is the cost of entry," Beals says. "To make a film in Baltimore for the budget of 'The Coin Bearer,' I would either have to make a very short film, or ask every person on the production to go without pay. I have worked without pay, and I didn't want to be that kind of producer, begging for favors.
"I had limited resources, and I was tired of waiting for the right conditions to appear in order to make an American film. We were able to pay the cast and crew on 'The Coin Bearer' a livable wage based on the cost of living in the Philippines. I'm proud of that accomplishment, and my hope is that by establishing a track record of completing films, that I will one day be able to afford to make a film in Baltimore."
Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7901.
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