CANNES—There she was, strolling down the world-famous Boulevard de La Croisette, a petite Filipino woman in a “princess” gown with gold embellishments.
Foreigners could not help doing a double take, as she crossed the street. Their expressions said it all: Who’s that girl?
But the Filipino contingent knew this particular glamour girl very well: She was Angeli Bayani—the Pinoy actor with two films in the world’s biggest festival (compatriot Lav Diaz’s “Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan” in the Un Certain Regard section and Singaporean Anthony Chen’s “Iloilo” in Directors’ Fortnight). “Iloilo” won the Camera D’Or prize for best first feature film.
Bayani’s two films received a rousing reception during their respective premiere presentations at Cannes, which concluded Sunday, and the actor was ecstatic, somewhat.
“I’m still floating,” Bayani, in her Boy Domingo ball gown, told the Inquirer after the “Norte” screening at Salle Debussy of the Palais on Thursday.
If the fest was a blur, it was because she almost did not make it to the “Iloilo” gala held a day earlier at the Theater Croisette of JW Marriott. “I missed my plane and had to dress up in the train (from Paris to Cannes).”
The “Iloilo” gala was crazy as she was worried that her Santi Obcena dress would reveal more than what was necessary.
Watching the film was a struggle for her, too. “I’m short so I couldn’t read the subtitles. So I just focused on the visuals.” Even without understanding the predominantly Chinese dialogue, “I got the film’s message. I ended up watching the film not just as an actor, but as an audience member, too,” Bayani recalled.
Chen described the ovation as “surreal,” because he also had to “recover from the trauma of the technical glitches (during the screening).”
“But it soon became clear to us that the audience really loved the film,” Chen said. “There were tears in their eyes. It spoke to them.”
In casting Bayani’s role as a nanny, he flew to Manila and auditioned 50 Filipino actors.
“Some of those actors worked with notable directors like Diaz and Brillante Ma. Mendoza,” Chen recounted. “I eventually chose Angeli because she exuded fragility (due to her diminutive) height.”
He also believed that her personal story would enrich his film’s narrative.
“I thought her being a single mother would be very useful for the character,” Chen explained. “She is very close to her son. So I thought that the idea of her having to come to Singapore for a month’s shoot will stir up a lot of emotions. She would miss her child, which was very similar to her character’s dilemma, too.”
For the other Filipino characters in the film, like the next-door maid and the beauty salon employees, Chen scoured Singapore for real OFWs (overseas Filipino workers). “We went to Lucky Plaza, a mall frequented by Filipinos and found real people for the roles.”
Just as memorable for Bayani was the “Norte” ovation, especially because it was for a Filipino film made by frequent collaborator Diaz.
She described the “Norte” screening, thus: “It was heartening. It was humbling.”
Said Diaz, “(The standing ovation) was not just for me. It was for Philippine cinema.”
“Words cannot express how I felt. I am simply thankful,” said Bayani.
“Norte” merited glowing reviews, too—leaving Bayani in tears.
Screen Daily’s Jonathan Romney pointed out, Diaz’s “musings on guilt, will and modern Filipino history … have grace, humanity and narrative verve aplenty, along with intellectual clout.”
Grantland’s Wesley Morris remarked, Diaz’s film “has the title of a war epic and the soul and scope of a great novel.”
There was talk after the Thursday screening that “Norte” should have been included in the main competition, according to its producer Raymond “Moira” Lee.
This was confirmed by Morris’ review, “This is the sort of masterpiece the main competition has yet to produce, an astonishing work of life, death and art that isn’t bluntly political, vapidly violent or completely self-obsessed. It’s a crime for the directors on the jury—Steven Spielberg, Ang Lee … not to have the opportunity to see it. (It) speaks to their reasonably divergent cinematic concerns.”
Cinematographer Larry Manda told the Inquirer that the Coen brothers (Ethan and Joel) and actor Frances McDormand watched “Norte” and stayed for the whole four hours.