by Patricio Ginelsa, Jr.
So here I was reading the recent issue Entertainment Weekly half a year ago. They had this eye catching article on the boom of minority actors hitting the big and small screens. In the middle of the page was a picture of this Filipino guy... so BOOM! I'm thinking "wow, a Pinoy sighting!!!!" It was no other than Paolo Montalban, the young Filipino American actor who slipped into the role of Prince Charming opposite musical stars Brandy and Whitney Houston in the big Disney TV adaptation of Cinderella last year. I admit I didn't catch it on TV but that night, Paolo's name and face came to my attention once again when one of my girl friends showed me People magazine's Most Beautiful People.... and there he was... a Filipino American! Wow this Paolo Montalban...an actor... a sex symbol...sheesh... this guy was bound to be a big celebrity among the Filipino community...and that's exactly what he's become!
Now fast forward to the present where the man himself finally shows up for his interview in the middle of San Francisco's Yerba Buena Gardens, where the Filipino "Pistahan" festival is taking place. And just like that, females are running up to him for his autograph and a photo shoot quickie. But Paolo takes it all in stride, smiling, greeting his fans, chatting, and taking pictures with them. There I got to see the real Paolo Montalban, no different than the Prince Charming he portrays in the movie. Straight off, you can tell that this is no ego driven celebrity whose risen status has gotten to his head. Even though Paolo has just gotten off a long flight from Florida, he shows no signs of fatigue as he sits down with me to talk about his rising career.
me how life's been after Cinderella? The Filipino community has had their eye
on you ever since.|
Great. I've had the opportunity to work on some really great projects. There's a bit of a Prince Charming stigma which is not a bad one. (laughs) I'm not knocking it. Now the goal's to diversify in terms of roles.
What's your reaction
to all the hype concerning you being a breakthrough for Filipinos?
I'm curious. Where
were you born? What did you do to reach this point?
Did you experience
a lot of racial obstacles on stage?
But of course in
TV and film, it's different, huh? Everyone wants you to be like the bad guy,
right? You know what I mean? Or the sidekick.
Then why take up
acting? Being in New York, I bet you grew up watching a lot of theater,
They come and go unexpectedly. However, just that second of exposure is enough to make you remember it for a long time. As an avid moviegoer, I'm always thrilled to spot a Pinoy sighting in Hollywood movies. By a Pinoy sighting I mean any direct reference or connection to the Filipino community in a big studio picture. It could be that Filipino mailman who walks by as an extra for a total 5-second screentime. Or it could be Robert De Niro or Sylvester Stallone saying a candid line or two about Filipinos. Since the Filipino people are seen as a minority of minorities even by Hollywood standards, the instances that the films actually do refer to Pinoys are the moments I can't simply forget. Each Pinoy sighting I catch merits a "Wow, did u hear or see that?" from me or a big discussion later with my Filipino friends. At times, it's something to be proud of, the fact that Hollywood remembers the Filipinos. On the other hand, most of the Pinoy sightings come across as any other stereotype handed to every other minority race. In the vein of the Indian 7-11 owner and the Chinese martial artist, the Filipino is typecast as well but in a confusing way. Sometimes I think that Hollywood doesn't even know what a Filipino is.
I remember sitting in the theater watching Tim Burton's alien spoof "Mars Attacks" The opening scene of the film occurs somewhere in Kentucky on a farm. Two neighbors meet outside. The white neighbor greets the other neighbor as a "Mr. Lee". So suddenly I'm thinking, "Ok, he must be Chinese." However, the white neighbor goes on to say, " Are you guys planning a Filipino Barbecue?" So he must be Filipino right? As a herd of burning cows runs past the farm, the family comes out of the house and they are all of Chinese descent. Now, first of all, how common is a Filipino bearing the last name of Lee? And number two, what exactly did the neighbor mean when he mentioned Filipino BBQ? OK, the movie just began, but this simple Pinoy sighting stuck in my head. Here I am sitting in the audience trying to make sense of that line. Was that supposed to be a poke at our culture or just a joke? I could simply justify it by saying the white neighbor believed he was Filipino. I guess I was just disturbed of seeing a bunch of oriental actors (most of them Chinese) playing a Filipino family. And believe me, they looked nothing like a typical Pinoy family. If they weren't supposed to be, they should have been simply due to the rarity of Filipinos seen in movies.
Here's what I don't get. Hollywood spends a lot of money making these films. A lot of that money is spent alone in getting the right equipment and crew to correctly shoot the film. A lot goes into getting the right lighting, the right camera angle, the right special effects and basically everything technical in the book. But nooooooo... when it comes down to portraying a particular race correctly, it's of the lowest priority. You know there's something wrong with society when people pay more attention to the look of green aliens to that of real human beings. I know it's such a small scene in the movie. But "Mars Attacks" is a Hollywood movie, meaning that it will be consumed by millions and millions of people in the theaters and at homes on video. Hollywood honchos don't seem to realize how image and representation means a lot to minorities. Yes, you see whites being poked at and being ridiculed a lot in Hollywood films. But in my book, that's OK because we see them all the time. We're so familiar with the trends and lifestyles, the stories of white America that every representation has been covered. With minorities, it's a different story because of our limited control of the medium. Imagine what the "Mars Attacks" casting director was thinking about when he/she was filling the Filipino roles. "Hmmm, they act well, and hmmm, they look Asian meaning they look Filipino, so they're good enough... nahhh, it's such a small scene anyway, who would notice?". The filmmakers probably never met a Filipino in their lives but little do they know that others DO know what Filipinos look like. I'd rather pick a bad acting Filipino actor over any great Asian actor any day just to capture the right representation.
As always, this is a result of Hollywood's tendency to group us as under the Asian umbrella which the Chinese and Japanese have the most influence. This way of thinking says that whether we're Korean, Thai, or Cambodian, we all eat rice, have oriental eyes, and yes, we all have the last names of Lee.
Want another negative example?
The other Pinoy sighting that sticks to mind is from the James Cameron-written "Strange Days", a sci-fi film with an interesting concept. But one scene I remember happens early on in a bar where Ralph Fienne's character is trying to sell his memory disks to a potential customer. In pitching several scenarios, he says "Look that guy over there with the drop dead Filipino girlfriend". This is followed by a quick shot of the Filipina fondling with the guy by the bar. Hey, just another reaffirmation of the ol' stereotype about Filipinas being flirtatious, pretty, and an easy target for Americans. It is a simple line of dialogue in the movie. However, why does the word "mail order bride" come to mind after viewing this scene?
Hey, we all know already that Filipinos and other Asian ethnicities have little exposure in these Hollywood movies. And with what little spotlight they have, Asians are mostly seen as kung fu fighters (Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan), wise sages (Mr. Miyagi), or sexy vixens ("Me suckee suckee"). Hey, as fun as it was, I was a little mad watching how much the Chinese community was bashed in "Lethal Weapon 4", not just physically but through dialogue as well. It just tells you how inferior minorities are viewed as from mighty Hollywood, making any of us invulnerable to their jokes. Even within the Asian spotlight, the majority coverage belongs to Chinese, Japanese, or Vietnamese. Pinoy sightings are rare indeed but when it occurs, it sticks.
Am I coming across as being harsh? Maybe, but it is hard watching a movie you really enjoy and then having an unnecessary Filipino reference ruin it. But for all the bad Pinoy sightings, I can admit I've seen more positive ones. Hey, I'm proud of saying that the kid from "Surf Ninjas" and one of the movie Ninja turtles is no other than Ernie Reyes Jr., a Filipino. That kid Rufio with the weird hair in Spielberg's "Hook" is another Filipino, Dante Basco. And what about that recent Disney adaptation of Cinderella with Brandy? Paolo Montalban, who is also Filipino, played her prince.
Although these colorblind castings help in increasing the exposure of minorities in films, they really don't do much to break down Filipino stereotypes. However, it does give the Filipino community something to be proud of. Being seen is only a step. I've always looked up to the progress the black community has done regarding their increasing presence in film and TV. But until Filipinos reach that level, I'm restricted to viewing "Mars Attacks" as the highlight of Filipino presence in Hollywood films.