CARMEN NAKPILMANILA, August 13, 2003 (MALAYA) By Carmen Nakpil  - LAST Thursday, I strayed into the old Greenbelt for the opening night of the Cinemanila Festival because I admire its founder, Tikoy Aguiluz and was intrigued by the Fil-Am premiere film, "The Debut." But I had forgotten that interminable, gleeful antics always roil around opening ceremonies hereabouts, and I had to sit through three hours of motor-mouth ruminations into the mike, acknowledgements of celebrity guests, rock music and lifetime achievement awards, which, in other countries, are given only to those who're 90 or more. All of this happened on a stage bafflingly decorated with sculptures and artwork reminiscent of a kindergarten party, and dominated by Binay, Dick Gordon, Butz Aquino and Imee.

But the film was worth the long wait. Directed by Gene Cajayon and written by him and John Manal Castro, "The Debut" is both a light, airy romp through the world of Filipino teenagers in America and a serious exposition of the woos and values of overseas Filipinos. The dramatic center is the 18th birthday party (thence the title) of Rose Mercado (Bernadette Balagtas), the sister of Ben Mercado (Dante Basco), the main character. Ben has been trying to fit into white America, hanging out with white classmates, and distancing himself from the old, Pinoy folks' embarrassing customs and demands. He is torn between two cultures, and, at the party, things come to a head. His white friends who are accidental guests are charmed by the warmth, generosity and sentimentality of the Pinoys, the folk dances, the mountains of ethnic food, and Ben is overcome by the chemistry between him and his sister's chum Annabelle (Joy Bisco). He tries to decamp for an American party which turns out to be grossly malevolent and he is insulted by racial slurs.

"Debut" has all the technical sophistication to make it world class. The California Pinoy kids are tan, cute, with authentic American accents. The older, square, authoritarian Pinoys from Manila are played excellently by Tirso Cruz, Eddie Garcia, Gina Alajar and Ernie Zarate. There is only one rant about the Filipino-American War and Bataan, but the film succeeds in communicating the message that it is better to be local first before going global and to love national before becoming international.

How funny-ironic it is that, while millions of native-born Filipinos are trying to give an arm, a leg and probably a kidney to become American citizens, scores of outsized, mongrel faced Americans and other foreigners have been ordered deported or investigated by the Philippine Senate for living and working in the Philippines under false pretenses supported by microwaved documents. Why do these foreigners try to take on so desperately the identity most Filipinos want to shed?

Silly question. Because each of them has found fame and fortune in these hospitable isles (where most ballplayers are mostly too short to participate in the shrine to basketball magic) which pay interlopers $2 million a year, and they can live La Vida Rica as beloved public idols.

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The Oakwood mutineers of July 27 have won after all, and I got what I wanted badly that Sunday. Not a hair of their young heads was harmed, just mussed up a bit because they're in jail and incommunicado.

Now the nation's justice agencies are vying for the privilege of punishing them, and Congress wants in on the hottest show. Capts. Trillanes, Maestrecampo, Gambala and the rest got their way after all. The hated Corpus has quit, Secretary Angelo Reyes is beset by contemptuous hoots at his mansions, lifestyle and record. And President Arroyo and her administration have been unnerved. Although I hope they did not really mean to, the mutineers have attained instant celebrity, general sympathy and adulation. Best of all, everyone has been galvanized into naming and denouncing the source of the national discontent and frustration (Corruption) and some reforms have been started. That's more than all the pompous antigraft commissions have been able to do in our checkered past.

Not bad at all for a 20-hour standoff at a prime location in upscale, first-world, perfumed Makati.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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