Nonito Donaire’s role model as a boxer and his role model as an actor are the same guy.
Co-starring in Palad Ta Ang Nagbuot, The “Filipino Flash” aptly and amply demonstrates his kinship with Filipino boxing legend Gabriel “Flash” Elorde . The film premiered Saturday in Vallejo, Calif., and Donaire, who fights Toshiaki Nishioka on Oct. 13, was there. So was I.
Elorde (1935-1985) originated the same film role in 1969, at the tail end of a boxing career that made him the first significant 130-pound world champion in the late 1950s and early ’60s. Until Manny Pacquiao came along, Elorde was nearly the consensus favorite son of Philippines boxing and therefore an obvious target for Donaire’s devotion.
Not all of the film’s nostalgia focuses on Elorde. The production’s slogan is “The Return of the Visayan Movie,” a genre that has been pretty much dormant in recent years.
This set up a return to his roots for Donaire. The Visayan Islands are the major population nexus of the central Philippines between the two major islands, Luzon (including Manila) and Mindanao (province of Pacquiao). Donaire spent much of his early childhood in Bohol, near Cebu before moving to the Bay Area and becoming a boxing superstar whose stature approaches that of Elorde, if not quite Pacquiao.
So the photogenic Donaire, whose primary show biz credit heretofore was a seventh-place finish on “Celebrity Duets” on Philippines television in 2009, spent a chunk of July-August 2012 in Cebu. The movie, in Visayan and Tagalog with English subtitles, was filmed in barely a week despite the effects of monsoon season.
Returning to his own Visayan movie roots was director Dandin Ranillo, whose quest to make the film was underwritten by a group of Visayan-Americans in the Bay Area. That’s why a church in Vallejo hosted the premiere.
Donaire’s performance, while perhaps not as breathtaking as Archie Moore’s performance as Jim in the 1960 film The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is more than credible as he is called upon to dance, sing the very catchy theme song, ham it up, show true gravitas, appear in drag and, most important, to cry. He’s particularly good at the dancing and crying.
It’s better not to spoil the not-so-complicated plot by divulging the reason for the sobbing, but it’s fair to say that boxing becomes crucial to the story.
Donaire portrays a peasant lad whose limited employment options are impeding his romance with a nearby beauty whose grandmother won’t let this raffish young bum seal the bonds without better means of support.
Donaire proves he knows this guy, knows how the other half lives, contradicting those in the Philippines who think Donaire has become too American to relate.
Donaire doesn’t really carry the film in this debut. Gloria Sevilla, who starred in the 1969 version of the film, dominates every scene she’s in as the grandmother.
Donaire has good chemistry with the grandmother, the girlfriend (Krissel Valdez) and his two pals. He moves well, as you’d expect, but he also gestures well, a trait many veteran TV people, athletes or otherwise, never master.
One might fault Donaire for overacting in slapsticky scenes with his buddies, but some of that seems to be characteristic of this sort of film, sort of like Shakespeare’s rude mechanicals . The Visayan genre also tends to impart its spiritual messages at the Sunday sermon level, so it’s not fair to expect esoteric sophistication of a film whose title translates as “Our Fate Decides.”
It may not rate consideration for awards at Cannes or Sundance, but it’s a highly entertaining and soulful 90 minutes, particularly if you’re Visayan or a boxing fan.