Monday, September 6, 2010

29th August 2010: Alyas Batman En Robin (1991)

Alyas Batman En Robin

Philippines 1991 colour

aka Batman En Robin, Alias Batman And Robin

Director Tony Y. Reyes Writers Joey de Leon, Tony Y. Reyes

Cast Joey de Leon (Batman/Bruce), Keempee de Leon (Kevin/Robin), Rene Requiestas (Jocson/Joker), Dawn Zulueta, Vina Morales (Vina), Panchito [Alba] (Tiyo Paenguin)

Philippines cinema has had a long and fruitful relationship with its komic industry dating back to the Forties, as well as a tenuous grasp on the concept of international copyright law. Much of Western culture was adopted and adapted, and put through the process of “Pinoyization”: out of the other end of the cultural sausage machine came a product that was faintly recognizable, but very much Filipino in flavour.

At times producers didn't even bother slapping a new label on a familiar product. The Sixties, it seemed, was open season on Americana: not only Batman, but James Bond, the Phantom, Tarzan – the list is endless. Copyright holders required a court case to be mounted in the offenders' country of origin – a costly and often pointless process, particularly if the offending territory is as far away as the Philippines. And so the relentless plundering of Batman iconography continued, including the intriguing titles Batman Fights Dracula (1967) and Batwoman And Robin Meet The Queen Of The Vampires (1972). But enough was enough, and when Batman En Robin premiered in Manila cinemas in 1991, DC Comics sent a cease-and-desist letter (or so the story goes). The film was withdrawn from theatres, only to reappear on VHS months later with “Alyas” before the film's title, but with all of the infringing material – the name Batman, for starters, along with the symbol, the Batmobile, the Bat Cave ad nauseum – thankfully intact. There's parody, and the degree of license bestowed upon its comedic form, and then there's outright theft. I think you'll quickly note which side of the legal fence this unrepentant sack of arse is proud to sit.

Kevin (Keempee de Leon) is a teenage dreamer obsessed with comics and especially Batman and Robin, lives with his older brother (Joey de Leon) in their parents' old house, is a champion swimmer at his local high school, and object of every young girl's affections. His jealous rival is schoolmate Jocson (Rene Requiestas), a would-be Casanova with full moustache and no front teeth and possibly the oldest schoolboy in the Philippines. He hates both Kevin AND Robin with a passion, and favours the darker charms of Batman's rival The Joker instead. As fate would have it, Jocson's Tiyo (“Uncle”) Paeng (Panchito) invites him to join his new criminal organization, a fearsome bunch based on Batman's rivals: Uncle Paeng crowns himself the Paenguin, complete with top hat and umbrella, while Jocson dons the pancake makeup and spikes his hair into antennae to create the most ludicrous, almost Dali-esque caricature of the Joker in Comicdom.

With assistance from a slinky Cat Woman and her gang of masked she-kittens, Tiyo Paenguin and the Joker embark on a crime spree the likes of which “Gotham City” (or is it “Anila”, as a newspaper headline suggests?) has never seen. At the Smith and Wesson Dollar Exchange, the super-baddies point their guns at the cashiers – and then break into song and dance routine, whilst the girls behind the counter wave their upstretched arms in unison. And the musical numbers don't stop there. Kevin talks his older brother into donning the superhero costumes and teaming up as the Caped Crusader and Wonder Boy in order to banish Paenguin and Joker, and by association, Evil from the world of the Right and Just. Over the top of a montage showing the two brothers getting into superhero shape and building their own Batmobile, musical copyright is once again flushed down the toilet to the tune of the Beach Boys' “Surfin' Safari”:

Do you still remember from your comic book?

All the series of the Dynamic Two

The Caped Crusader and the Wonder Boy

Kalaban nila ang mga goons (They fight all the goons)

Holy smoke, Batman and Robin

Oh my God! Batman and Robin

Praise the Lord Batman and Robin

Shoot na shoot Batman and Robin

Let’s do Bruce Wayne now and Dick Grayson now

They are all a part of me…

For all its surface weirdness and eccentricities to a Western audience, it must be remembered that Alyas Batman En Robin was considered a major release in the Philippines: produced by the largest studio at the time, Regal Films, and starring three of the most popular comedians ever. Joey de Leon's Batman is just one of hundreds of his comedic creations from a career dating back to the Seventies as popular TV comic, game show host, DJ, singer, and member of the phenomenally popular team of Tito, Vic and Joey (affectionally known as “TVJ”). Along with brothers Tito and Vic Sotto, TVJ graduated from TV sensations in Seventies sitcom Iskul Bukol to prolific films stars throughout the Eighties. Aside from the odd reunion the trio went their separate ways in '88, and it was Joey who had the earliest hits with goofy parodies like Starzan (1989) and The Long Ranger And Tonton (1989), often with Batman's Tony Reyes in the director's chair. Alyas Batman... is even cheeky enough to reference Joey's most beloved screen character:

Batman: No, no, I don't really like Batman.

Kevin: What do you like?

Batman: I'd like to be Starzan!

Kevin: What? Starzan? And turn it into shit?

Joey is still one of the most prolific presences on Philippines TV in four separate shows for GMA-7 – testament to any popular comedian's staying power, and their public's loyalty and adoration. The same can be said for Panchito Alba (“Uncle” Paenguin), the gruff, exasperated sidekick of Dolphy, the Philippines' King of Comedy, in movies and on stage together since the early Fifties, and a top-shelf comic in his own right. Rene Requiestas (Jocson/The Joker) found fame much later in his life as Joey de Leon's comic foil in many of solo outings, with his trademark missing front teeth and malleable moustache. Sadly, both comedians passed away soon after Batman – the 36 year-old Rene of tuberculosis in 1993, the much older Panchito following complications from a stroke in 1995, aged 70.

As with much of the Philippines' populist fare, Batman's faults are many and glaring. It adopts a regulation Bollywood-style “masala” approach: throw in some comedy, some romance, some by-the-book goon action (and let's not forget the musical numbers!), and pad out the film's unnecessarily long running time with protracted and pointless exposition, in the belief the audience's ceaseless fascination with their favourite film personalities will carry the movie just nicely. Even the goon punch-ups – a chance to emulate the “Biff! Bang! Pow!” moments of the Sixties TV show – are flat and uncooked, with not even the hint of a camera tilt on the horizon. It's lazy, perfunctory filmmaking at best, which trades on accumulated goodwill and over-familiarity which in the West would merely breed contempt. Luckily for Alyas Batman En Robin the film is, at times, as funny as it is bizarre, and the humour – never an easy thing to translate between cultures - is in turns silly, self-aware, puerile, grotesquely unfunny, ribald and downright scatological. Take for example Paenguin and Joker's escape from their prison cell, under a toilet and into the sewer below...

Paenguin: In a toilet bowl? That's why you're a shit, smell like shit, because you're always close to shit!

Joker: I thought you wanted to escape?

Paenguin: How? Are you going to put me in and flush me?

Then there's a blink-and-you'll-miss-it studio in-joke – Batman points to the Regal Films emblem on Kevin's Robin costume and says, “Wait, what's this? This is a Viva film [Regal's main rival]. Why is it on Regal? “I bought it already,” replies Kevin.

On the romance front there's young Kevin and his puppy-lovestruck classmate Vina (pop star/actress Vina Morales), who halt the film long enough for a duet in English which sounds like Celine Dion dropping her breakfast. Batman himself goes weak in the tights for ace reporter Angelique Legarda (Dawn Zulueta) and at one point even addresses the camera in a Wayne's World moment (come to think of it, Joey does look like an older, doughier Mike Myers) and asks the audience, “What if I do a dream sequence?” Cut to a fantasy poolside sequence in which Batman saves Angelic from a gang of goons but loses his mask, and tries to maintain his secret identity by wearing her bikini on his face. What can I tell you? I'm a sucker for lowbrow silliness. In a word: Comedy...Gold...

Despite the best efforts of Uncle and nephew, the true family values of goodness and justice prevail, and the storyline stresses that Batman is nothing without Robin, and vice versa. The film ends with the Batman clan, a reformed Paenguin and Joker, and a cast reunion on the front lawn outside the Batcave. There's even a few surprise additions: Angelique in a Wonder Woman costume (hubba hubba!), Superman, and even a go-go dancing dwarf Spiderman! Cue a second stolen tune, this time “At The Hop”, while the Joker points out his new-found humility in Taglish (a mangle of Tagalog and key English phrases):

Kung kayo ay isang salbahe (If you’re bad) and you are very naughty

You dirty rat. You’re very dirty rat!

Pwede pa kayo mag bago at hindi pa nahuhuli ang lahat (You can still change while it’s not too late)

Let us sing kumpare (friend) that the world means love and not the rot

Let us good na brod (Let's be a good brother),

Let us not be bad

That’s better

Let’s be good na part (Let’s be part of good), let’s be afraid of God

Ahh... Let's believe in love!

It's equal parts comedy heaven and hell, and I sure know which part Rene Requiestas is in right now, tittering away in whiteface, after witnessing the DC Comics car crash courtesy of Manila traffic, Alyas Batman En Robin.

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