Filipino film ‘Toto’ receives ‘Best Foreign Language film’ at the LA Comedy Festival in HollywoodBy Cecile Ochoa
Hollywood, CA – Writer-director John Paul Su of “Toto,” recently received the Best Foreign Language film award in this year’s Los Angeles Comedy Festival held here from May 12 – 22. “Toto” also received the Best actor award for Sid Lucero. In Metro Manila, “Toto” is Urian’s nominee this year for the Best Supporting Actress Award for Liza Dino.
“Toto,” is set in the backdrop of a Filipino hotel in Manila where the protagonist (Lucero) attempts to use every possible means to obtain a U.S. visa, with the proverbial end of providing a better life for his family.
The Los Angeles Comedy Festival is the largest comedy festival in the U.S. featuring Film, Live Comedy Acts, and a Screenplay Competition. The past festivals have featured thousands of performers and hundreds of films from LA and around the world. Past participants have gone on to win the Oscar for Best Short Film, Last Comic Standing, signed Web series development deals for Network TV, received feature film theatrical distribution, among others.
The film immediately strikes a familiar theme: the Filipinos’ diaspora and their “dream to come to America”. It’s entered in the festival as a “black comedy;” some think there is an underlying satirical comment on such aspirations.
JP as he is known, graduated from De La Salle University in Manila and New York University and has received numerous awards from prestigious international film organizations, among which from Directors’ Guild of America, “Pagpag”; Gold Quill International Association of Business Communicators for “Habitat for Humanity.”
“Toto,” attracted a capacity audience in a mid-size theater along Melrose, composed of a good representation of the various audiences of LA – Caucasians, African Americans, Hispanics, Asians and Filipinos.
“I like to write and make films that cross over different cultures and touch universal themes, like ‘Toto’. It is about resilience to overcome adversity; love for family; the mother and child story; friendship; love versus career – these are themes that resonate in moviegoer’s life, whoever or wherever they are, said Su in an interview with this writer.
“This film is like an onion – it has many layers that you peel; in every layer you’ll find a different sense, just like our human condition. That’s how the Filipino diaspora and the lives of the Filipino overseas worker could be understood.”
Indeed, “Toto” has created a metaphor of “America” in the Filipino hotel setting where individuals of different background interact, each one with a compelling story.
A “white man,” Dave (played by Hollywood actor Blake Boyd) gives Toto, the hotel service attendant, his “passport” to America. The denouement portrays David as a Russian immigrant himself, adopted by Jewish parents.
“We all search for an advocate in our life to take the next step, and thematically, that’s the overriding message of ‘Toto’.”
Su referred to multi-awarded film maker Carlitos Siguion-Reyna (“Azucena”), who was his professor at NYU as his advocate who has opened many doors for him as a young immigrant in the profession. He also referred to Palanca and Urian winner Ricky Lee (“Himala”) and Oscar winner Taiwanese film maker Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) as having had an impact in his body of work.“Toto” is JP Su’s first full length film and he hopes this project would open doors for him in Hollywood not only as a Filipino but also as a film maker of significance.
“Toto,” was filmed in the Philippines in 17 days with less than a million-dollar budget.
He said finding mainstream financial backing for his first full length film was difficult. He had to rely on personal funds, family and friends’ support.
Su laments Hollywood’s portrayal of diversity in film-making as “purely black and white. “
“Hollywood seems to think that a film with African and Caucasian in major roles constitute ‘diversity’ and that’s detrimental to the other minority groups who are trying to make it in the business, “said Su during an interview with this writer”.
Su said the disadvantage of being an “invisible minority “ in America is that the unique characters of Asians, not to mention Filipinos, are not distinctly portrayed in films.
“There seems to be a notion that Asian or Filipino markets are similar to the White market – that Asians buy the same stuff as the Caucasians; they don’t see us as a force to reckon with; we are not a specific market.
Thus, it’s not important to understand ‘them’ ”.
“Asian filmmakers are perceived as too polite- too quiet with the ‘diversity call’. The sad thing is that the media regard a film or show production automatically as very diverse as soon as there are African American roles in it.
Diversity is not a game of chess- not a black and white. There’s the brown, yellow and other spectrum of the rainbow to be captured; it is not monochromatic”.
He noted that Filipino film makers in Hollywood are in the last line of the “minority back line”, in terms of gaining publicity and support.
Like films with modest budget, don’t expect glamour in its technical quality. However, veteran movie critique and Urian Board member Mario Hernando told this writer: “…the indie films (like “Toto”) are usually much more substantial and better-made. Gloss after all is not the hallmark of great cinema.” Hernando said he liked the film. ”
“There’s a ‘Toto’ in all of us,” says the film’s promo. Is there an Oscar forthcoming for “Toto?”
“Of course, that would be an understatement, dream come true,” said Su; “but a nomination has to come from the Philippines as its entry in the Best Foreign film category”. For now, he’s lining up to show this project in different film festivals in the U.S.
Based on a true story, Su co-wrote the film with Donald Martin. Cast include Sid Lucero who portrayed Toto, Thou Reyes, Liza Dino, Bembol Rocco, Bibeth Orteza (married to Carlitos Siguion-Reyna), among others.