Sunday, April 17, 2011


Untimely departures are met with either a sense of awe or great sadness.  But regardless of how we choose to react to the unexpected death of someone we know, what hurts us most is the surprise.  It is that kind of jolt that goes straight to our core --- if only because we are reminded of our own mortality.

We are made to confront irrevocable facts: that life can be so unpredictable and volatile.  That we can go any time without warning, without fanfare. And that we will never ever see or hear or touch that person who has left us forever because he will now only be part of our memory.

What hurts us even more is when someone with such great promise for the future --- someone so young and admirable --- is suddenly gone.

Any which way we look at the events, nothing makes sense.  Why should someone right on the verge of a blossoming life, full of challenges and great chances of achievement, be suddenly taken away?  What happens to all the possibilities?  What will become of all those opportunities for scaling greater heights and conquering challenges and yielding achievements?  

It is as if one big switch has been turned off --- and everything comes to an abrupt end without any sensible conclusion. Without any resolution. And certainly devoid of any explanation.  There is cruelty in that --- especially for those among us who demand justifications. 

But it does not work that way.  These things happen.

And God owes us no explanation. We are here only to accept whatever He has so deemed for all of us.

This is how many of us felt when we heard the news about the death of AJ Perez.  For the greater number of people who were saddened by this information early on a Sunday morning, the loss of a good looking, educated and refined young actor was enough to bring tears.  But for those who really knew him and had the opportunity of knowing and working with him, the sense of loss --- the absurdity of this event --- was doubly devastating.

Young people who meet their deaths in a most tragic if not senseless way takes a much heavier toll on the hearts of those who have lived longer years --- and have survived far greater pains.  ( I precisely remember what my father said when our family had to bury my oldest brother.  My Dad wept quietly and whispered, "There is nothing more painful in the world than to bury your own child." ) The realization that a life has been so abruptly punctuated multiplies the sense of tragedy --- especially if the young person had so much promise and embodied so much life. The seeming injustice in the death of innocents seem to refute the continued existence of those who we feel are really less deserving to remain among us.  We ask ourselves, "Why him?" knowing we cannot provide any real logical answer.

AJ was not your typical wannabe actor. He was no wound-up toy who was too eager to please. He was never typical from the start. There was something about him that made him special in a way that he stood out from the rest of what may sometimes seem like an overpopulated roster of teen-age talents.

(When I met him on the set of Kasal, Kasali, Kasalo where he portrayed the younger brother of Judy Ann Santos, he was a soft spoken boy of about thirteen or fourteen years of age, a student of La Salle Greenhills --- who was quiet and somewhat shy yet replied sensibly ever aware of the significance of propriety and politeness.  He was a kid too tall for his age --- apparently loved by his parents as his father, Gerry, would always be around to drop him off the location, make sure his son was all right --- then leave AJ to his own devices to amuse himself on the set between takes. If ever Gerry opted to stay, he would make himself inconspicuous and out of the way of everybody busy at work.  That was how the father and son operated. They were never a burden to any body.

I even got to know Gerry Perez quite well: he proudly told me that he was one of the young actors from Bacolod who Peque Gallaga picked as a bit player in the opening party scene of Oro, Plata, Mata. That was how Gerry and I immediately connected.  And I remember how AJ listened as his father and I reminisced about that tedious overnight shoot in Bacolod decades ago to complete the party scenes of Gallaga's most memorable masterpiece. He was this kid who was more amused listening to his father remembering his own days as an actor than savoring the anecdote on local showbiz.)

Through the years, we all saw AJ grow up in front of our eyes through that magical box that we allow to enter our most private quarters.  We saw how AJ shaped himself into this gentleman who seemed to have the right conduct and good behavior as second nature.  He was such an exemplary piece of good breeding that not a single scandal was ever attached to his name.  Not a single bad word was ever muttered in the snake pit that was the studio to ever blemish his name or his work habits.

Thus, it did not surprise us that his career carried great promise. It was quite clear that the network set its eyes on the young actor to be next in line among the leading men being groomed for both television and the screen.

He belonged to that special group of anointed performers handpicked by the media gods to be the next generation sensations.

(AJ worked hard. If there was one thing I noticed about the boy on my set, it was that he worked very hard. He was not too fluent in Pilipino ... but he worked hard to get it right.  He was not going to equal some of his peers when it came to singing and dancing ... but he never shied away from the challenge of working even harder to deserve the spotlight they aimed at him. He felt he had to deserve every decibel of applause and every centavo he earned.  He never rested on the safety net of being "pa-cute".

I worked with AJ for the sequel of Kasal. But the role did not require much from him.  It was when we decided to cast him as the son of Christopher de Leon and Dawn Zulueta in the movie Magkaibigan that he truly impressed me.

There are two kinds of actors you want to work with.  The first is the very good actor --- the consummate performers who know their art, have made a life of their craft --- and would report to the set without the vanity or eccentricities typical of the mediocre trying to demand extraordinary importance.  The second are the actors who you just love being around with --- because they are such blessings on the set.  They are so easy to work with and they make life generally more tolerable, pleasing and palatable. They add energy and good vibes to everyone around them ... by sheer enthusiasm that can be so infectious.

AJ belonged to the latter group.  He was so well-loved by anyone he worked with --- so that after three movies with my production team, he has already become more than a familiar face for them.  It was not simply his boy-next-door looks that won him praise. It was his down-to-earth attitude. It was his accessibility.  He never rubbed people the wrong way because that all too famous smile of his is not only reserved for cameras and publicity pictorials. His smile was quite real.

So when we finally shot a critical scene in Magkaibigan where AJ, whose character is that of the son of a dying man, talked to his father's best friend portrayed by Jinggoy Estrada, I was pleasantly surprised. I knew AJ would and could deliver.  But I realized he went much farther than I expected.  At the end of the scene, I sent a text message of Mariole Alberto, chief honcho of Star Magic, to tell her that ... indeed they have cultivated and carved a gem out of this young actor.

He was no longer the quiet, gangling teen-ager who I met years earlier. He was on his way to being an actor.

I did not have a chance to work with AJ again after that movie.

We would exchange messages on Twitter, bump into each other sometime in the later afternoons as I proceed to the gym on the fifth floor of ELJ Building as he would be on his way to the studios.  

I have even forgotten when was the last time I saw him ... but I remember well that I congratulated him because he finished his high school studies at Greenhills. He was so proud of that.  He really wanted that.

And among the young actors of his generation, only very, very few give premium or even the semblance of importance to studies.  His parents have inculcated the strength of such values, emphasizing that the goal of education is to shape a man ... and not merely facilitate the acquisition of material wealth.)

We were all stunned to find out that AJ was suddenly taken away from us.  There seemed to be no reason why it had to happen now.  Especially now. He worked hard to be good at whatever he was doing ... and it was only now that everything was really about to begin.  And he was called back home. It did not make sense.

But then we can only offer palliatives that can serve their purpose for a while. Or even convince us that this was all part of a plan. A plan not only for Antonello Joseph Perez but for all of us who are now looking at his short but beautiful life.  A plan that we could never see in the here and now because we are far too close to the event but perhaps we could learn to appreciate in years to come.

Perhaps there is truth that the good die young.  Perhaps there is even greater truth in the fact that we are all sent here for a purpose ... for a mission ... and when we have accomplished what we are set out to do, then we are called back.  And for a life so brief, we are quite clear about what AJ achieved in his eighteen years.  

Far more impressive than any acting trophy or being crowned as box office king or being mobbed by vociferous adoring fans --- AJ inspired. AJ was an example. AJ brought a possibility that decency can exist in a business that has been corrupted and so capable of corrupting.  Until his very last day, as he was coming home from work, exhausted as he lay asleep on that fatal van, AJ was untouched by the dirt of the business, opting to preserve his decency and dignity.  Now that we realize has become quite rare ... if not nearly extinct ... in these days of amoral entertainment.

Perhaps God called him back because he wanted to spare AJ of the pain and anguish that will most certainly come in the years ahead. Or maybe God merely wanted to show all of us an example --- of a good son, a loving brother, a hardworking student --- and a decent human being all in the age of eighteen.

We will miss you, AJ.  We will really, really miss you.

Sunday, April 3, 2011


Let's face it: Filipinos love to be victims.

Perhaps that should be put in more specific terms.  Blame it on our cultural history. Blame it on our warped sense of romantic agony. Blame it on mass media. Blame it on our mothers and fathers --- and maybe our grandmothers and grandfathers. Blame it on our love for suffering --- thinking that it is good.  Blame it on anybody --- on whoever ... But we have to admit that to a certain extent we Pinoys are really --- screwed.

For one thing, we take great pride in cheering for the underdog.  Nothing wrong with that. It somehow ennobles a whole bunch of us to clap, hoot and  root for the Rocky Balboas of the World.  It somehow humanizes us because we feel so good in showing the world we are so good. But what gets really messed us is when we start obsessing in being underdogs ourselves! 

We begin to believe that the suffering justifies --- nay, affirms --- the sufferer.  We have actually convinced ourselves that the only way to redemption --- any form of salvation --- is to wallow in suffering, enjoy the pain of the journey and celebrate the anguish.  We call it persevering, persistence and endurance.  We brand it as pagsasakripisiyo and pagtitiis.  From an outsider's point of view, it is called textbook masochism.  Cultural masochism.

Not only do we enjoy suffering --- we love to talk about it. We love to venerate our pain.  We see ourselves as the suffering Christ, nailed on the cross --- and who, on the third day, shall rise from the dead.  We bow our heads to the images of Mater Dolorosa.  We equate godliness with an act of purgation --- completely forgetting that living a full and filling life is as important as a preoccupation for the rewards of the afterlife.  Better yet, it is what you do with your life in the here and now is the measure to your final destination when you croak.

But no!  A great number of Filipinos seem to have completely forgotten the true mission in one's life perhaps because of all the social and cultural reinforcements that blur their priorities.  

With brains marinated in nightly overdose of fantasy shows and lachrymal soap operas, promises of hope and a sparkling future by winning reality shows and talent searches,  it couldn't be helped that Filipinos yearn to be victims, to endure suffering --- and to go in front of a camera to tell the whole world how much of a downer of a life he is leading.

Now is that really good?  

Does it help to go on public confessionals, weeping in front of millions of people to announce how much God has been throwing so many obstacle courses along one's way?  Everyone seems to be trying to outdo everyone else in narrating the saddest story ever told and consider this as a ticket to that proverbial fifteen minutes of fame.  In a crowded market where everyone wants to nudge out everybody else, the demand for celebrated victimization has become so sensational --- that it has reached the level of the perverse.  The more kahabaghabag you present yourself, the greater your chances for reaching Nirvana. And that state of bliss is a few thousand pesos plus groceries that can last you a week from the friendly sponsors.

If we were to believe what some observers have declared, then perhaps we are in a much deeper rut than we can possibly surmise.  

Is it possible that media has so critically warped the values of the Filipino audience that who is rewarded is he who presents himself to be the bigger victim? 

For instance, in a recent talent search on tv, someone observed that the winner was not necessarily the one with the most impressive talent --- but the contestant whose kuwento was most heartbreaking (read: high on the sympathy level of the audiences).  And because of this obsession for the plight of the victim, the obligatory kurot sa puso has already become a katok sa utak. It is not how good you are or how much potential you have ... but how much of a loser you present yourself to the world.

Now isn't that just great?  It's the whole wallowing in self-pity syndrome except that the Filipino seems to enjoy doing backstrokes while swimming on a quicksand of tears.

So does it still surprise many of us why the indigent will literally line up outside tv studios for hours under sun, wind and rain to be able to grab a chance to go before studio cameras and tell their sad stories?

And do we not see how such forms of emotional manipulation send the worst kind of signals to the larger population --- equating victimization with a sense of obligation on the part of the haves to give alms to the have-nots?  

Does it not repel the sensibilities of the thinking sector that the poor (whose only remaining treasure is the dignity in their humanity, their rights as citizens of the Republic) will be made to narrate their tales of woe before they belt out songs, do breakdancing routines or even perform ridiculous acts much to the amusement of the hysterical audience?

How is this any different from the entertainment value found in gladiators smashing each other's brains out with the cheering multitude shouting for reality show death?  How is this any less perverse than a coliseum full of people finding pleasure watching Christians being eaten by the lions?  Perhaps that is a gross exaggeration --- or even an unfair comparison.  But indeed man has such perverse pleasures in seeing the suffering of others, ridiculing them --- and turning the entire process into a ritual of liberation and salvation.

For cash prizes and the chance to win more, more, more ... entertainment has stripped the poor and the needy of their dignity, diminishing their stature to nothing more than canines jumping through hoops while the rich and the privileged watch with smug amusement.  What is worse than this form of public degradation is the reinforcement if not the affirmation of the culture of mendicancy.

Oh, but many have already bemoaned that sad observation.  In this endless over-indulgence in romanticizing agony, the final gesture is the handing over of crisp peso bills to the awaiting palms of the poor. And this charity comes as a form of reward --- if not payment or obligatory gesture --- because the poor have to be helped.  We make fools out of them, we make them cry a river --- then we hand them peso bills to reassure ourselves that we are scoring points for the glory of God and country.  Yeah, right.

Media unwittingly (or maybe deliberately and maliciously ---who knows?) assures the less fortunate that it is good to be poor. And help does not come with providing concrete options and opportunities to improve their station in life. Instead, what is given is that temporary reward --- that momentary euphoria of holding a few thousands pesos --- even a million or two --- after being made as a subject of equally fleeting interest.  

The promise of the reward can be so blinding --- so that for those who will line up for hours to get into a studio to audition or be part of a game show, nothing is important beyond winning a prize or getting any form of reward.

Sadder is the fact that those who challenge programs capitalizing on helping the needy or offering promises of superficial if not such temporary hope are branded as anti-poor.  The most common accusation is that those who condemn such shows are the snooty intellegentsia, the apathetic middle class, the condescending elite who do not understand the meaning of suffering or the plight of the indigent because they were born lucky enough to possess options and claim opportunities.

Everything is diminished to simplistic class struggle --- a battle between sila and tayo: "Sila" refers to the arrogant middle class --- while "tayo" points to the so-called defenders of the poor and the struggling stratum of the population blinded by bread and circuses.

So where will all this go?  Where will all this endearing fatalism bring the country ... as well as the substantial portion of the national population belonging to the impoverished class?  How does media play up to poverty --- and encourage that mentality that the needy have to be helped by dole-outs and not to enlighten if not strengthen them with better fighting chances for sustainable livelihood?

Does this mean that all the young people will continue to give up or turn their backs on education, hoping that they will be discovered to become big time artistas with the usual reasoning that gusto nilang tulungan ang kanilang mga pamilya?  Do we really find any semblance of social justice watching people bawl their eyes out while narrating their sad tales of misery and poverty ... and believe that indeed we have started solving problems by handing them token cash and loot bags?

In a culture that venerates victims and only provides placebos as hope, everyone ends up being a loser in the long run.  And that is certainly what is happening today in our country.

Friday, April 1, 2011


Since last Wednesday I have remained disturbed.

Watching the broadcast coverage of the execution of the three Filipinos found guilty of smuggling heroin in China left such a feeling of ambivalence.  There is that sadness that accompanies death --- especially one that involves a fellow countryman whose lapse of judgment has resulted to his or her victimization.  

Then there is the inevitability of it all. One is not quite sure whether sympathy is appropriate considering that justice is merely taking into action.  A law has been broken, a crime has been committed. Whether or not Sally, Ramon or Elizabeth were completely aware that they had kilos of heroin stuffed in their luggage as they attempted to enter China was beside the point.  They were found guilty and they had to suffer the consequences.  To a certain extent, poverty and despair cease to be an excuse or a justification.  There is a law. And laws are meant to be reinforced to preserve a larger order --- regardless of what station in life or where the perpetrator comes from. Regardless of what motivated an individual to knowingly (or unwittingly) indulge in a criminal activity.  

It could have been a gamble. Or any one of the three could have been coerced into entering China with the contraband.  But that is moot and academic.  They took the risk.  They broke the law. They were caught. They were tried. They were found guilty of a crime punishable by death.  And the sentence was finally carried out. All as simple as that.

What could have been an equally simple tale with a clear cut moral lesson about Filipinos being gullible to the temptations of earning a quick buck was somewhat warped by brazen commercialism in the news coverage.

Truth be told: I was so completely appalled by the manner all the major networks dedicated their reportage to a minute-by-minute blow-by-blow account of what was happening in two cities in China where the Filipinos were facing their death.  

Yes, the event was indeed sad --- but was there a need to literally squeeze every drop of emotion possible to transform a real life event into an over-the-top melodrama?

Was there such creative exercise in literally cajoling relatives of the three Filipino prisoners to verbalize how they felt, what they were experiencing, how their last meeting with their relative about to be brought to the execution chamber went ... prodding the weeping sibling to provide some juicy sound bytes to capture memorable last words from a dead man walking? I mean, what did these interviewers actually expect?! 
That during their last minutes together, the family discussed the weather with somene doomed to die? That they started swapping knock-knock jokes? That the prisoner who was never informed of the day of her execution should be overjoyed that it was all going to be over soon?

Oh, come on! 

And worse, why this obsession for details, this addiction to voyeurism ... this almost malicious and carnivorous desire to savor each and every moment that should have been reserved for the family ... and, yes, to give respect even to a criminal whose life has been cut short by the laws of a state?  

Contrary to some condescending belief, even a doomed man --- proven guilty of a great crime --- still deserves the respect of his or her privacy even in facing punishment by death. There is an imperative to give every human being the right to cry quietly ... with only those he chooses to show his tears ... and not every breathing creature capable of turning on a television set!

More so, even the relatives in MetroManila and all the way in Isabela were not spared of media molestation.  Cameras were literally waiting, aimed at mothers, grandmothers, sisters, cousins --- hoping to gather more sound bytes and highly emotional telenovela moments in real life --- that included wailing while crying, fainting and even incantations summoning the angels from heavens above and demons down under the sea to bring real justice to their doomed relative.  

All this real time action on a multi-channel platform had all the dramatic intensity of a fight that involves Manny Pacquiao and whoever there is out there remaining to exchange jabs with the Pambansang Kamao. Somehow all this emotional brouhaha has been blown so out of proportions to completely dilute if not dissolve that important line between reality and fantasy.  

Television has that effect of late.  It numbs the viewers.  It deadens the senses under the pretense of heightening emotions.  It desensitizes the common man to think that what is seen on screen is nothing more but a fabrication of media. How it easy it is to forget that these people literally cringing in the pain of sadness are real people and not actors armed with scripts possessing overwrought emotional outbursts.  How easy it is to completely miss out that three Filipinos were really losing their lives because of the execution of justice ... and this was not just another episode Maalaala Mo Kaya? or Untold Stories.

In the same manner, how completely desensitized has the Filipino audience become ... that they can stomp their feet, burst in applause and laughter ... while watching a six year old boy do lascivious dance moves while crying quietly on prime time television.  

And then again there is that even sadder fact that we have completely missed out on the whole point of the story of Sally, Ramon and Elizabeth.  In the desire of media to elicit such overflowing sympathy to the point of hysteria, we also set aside that there were major mistakes made. The mistakes were --- to use the parlance celebrated by television --- major major. And Sally, Ramon and Elizabeth had to pay with their lives for it.

By trivializing their death as yet another episode of the soap opera of mundane Filipino televiewing, we have also lost the entire point of the sadness in their lives ... and the meaning of their deaths.