Tuesday ∗ 12 Aug 2008

on the Filipinized Korean-novela

It is such a strange time for Philippine TV – and I’m not talking about reality television taking over our lives and creating many talentless stars in the process; nor about the fantaserye reminding us of how much we need to escape from the realities of rising oil prices and NFA rice lines. Both of these aren’t so much strange as they are sad.

What is strange is the rise of the Filipinized Korean-novela – a unique entity in a country where the Mexican telenovela Marimar was only Filipinized a decade after the original became a TV hit. This remake was something we actually had coming, given the too familiar plot of a poor simpleton turned rich powerful woman, ready to seek revenge, but is softened by her true love. It’s the stuff every other Pinoy soap opera is made of.

The Korean telenovela meanwhile is an unexpected entity that has appealed to Pinoy taste. When Meteor Garden became a big hit, it was a surprising thing – what with four chinky-eyed, pale yellow-white lead stars in the F4 and a simple-looking girl as lead stars, alongside a love story that seemed premised on cariño-brutal – not the usual Pinoy love story. Between the turn of the millennium to the present though, the Pinoy TV audience has taken to what we’ve come to call the Korean-novela like moths to a flame, even when the stories have evolved from strange love stories to complicated historical romances. And while it’s clear that the Pinoy taste for chinky-eyed Korean actors and actresses has much to do with the success these telenovelas enjoy, one can’t deny the possibility that there is as well an interest in the more complicated and unfamiliar plots that these stories keep. The kind that we rarely have in this country, fantaseryes notwithstanding.

Probably a testament to the appeal of the Korean story is the re-creation of these Korean-novelas into Filipinized versions, with My Girl on ABS-CBN 2 coming head-to-head with Kim Sam Soon (re-titled Ako si Kim Sam Soon) on GMA 7. These are two very disparate stories, with quite different target audiences, and now as Filipino versions of the originals, very distinct ways of taking on the challenge that is Filipinizing quite a foreign cultural product. How have they fared? And where do we find the Filipino, in plots that are so alien to us?

My Girl As Pinay Girl

It’s pretty clear from the way this teleserye was promoted that the decision to do it had much to do with the new-found success of reality show winner Kim Chiu and her team-up with co-winner Gerald Anderson. Never mind that neither are really actors, nor did their reality show Pinoy Big Brother Teen Edition have anything to do with talent at all. In this land where star creation is about hype and the bombardment of images more than anything, anyone can be a star.

Or get their own primetime slot. Chiu, a typical Filipino-Chinese teenager with the right amount of conservatism and quirkiness, seems tailor-made for the lead role of Jasmine. In fact, half the time, you almost think she’s just being herself. In this Filipinized version of My Girl, Jasmine is a teenage Filipino girl, always trying to save her father’s skin from being thrown in jail, to the detriment of her own individual life which ideally would only involve getting an education and some good ol’ puppy love.

But one out of two ain’t bad at all, for while Jasmine didn’t go to school, she does have her own prince charming in the character of Anderson. And as expected, not everything is well in this love story. For one thing, Jasmine’s job, for which she is paid by Anderson, is to pretend that she’s the long-lost granddaughter of Anderson’s grandfather. For another, this charade (which so far has allowed her to keep her father out of jail, and from being killed) has recently been found out by Anderson’s ex-girlfriend – the kind who doesn’t go away.

My Girl had much going for it in the beginning, with Jasmine’s foibles including her lack of knowledge about the lifestyle of the rich and famous that she was suddenly a part of. And while the love story is what’s mostly sold here, much can be said about Jasmine’s ability to rationalize her existence within the “fairytale” that she suddenly lives in; there is too, value in Jasmine’s love for her father – regardless of his flaws. How Filipino can you get?

But the creative team of My Girl seems to be Filipinizing this a bit too much – at least to the point of it becoming testament to the need to serve a buffet table of artistas at any given time. In this case, it’s the addition of the new batch of teen winners from the second season of Pinoy Big Brother Teen Edition. A decision that might take away audiences who had survived the neophyte acting of the show’s lead stars so far, but now have to contend with beginner’s-acting from reality show contestants turned actors. Obviously the goal is to get a bigger audience share, not keep the story going – which in recent weeks, has really been only going around in circles. Because too, how complicated can you make a Filipino teenage girl’s life? How complex can you make life seem for Kim Chiu and her image of the sweet quirky – ideal – teenager of the times?

Introducing the Pinay Old Maid

What My Girl lacks in complexity, Ako si Kim Sam Soon makes up for. Starting off with Sam Soon planning her wedding to, and being stood up at the altar by, her husband-to-be, this Filipinized version of Kim Sam Soon was off to a good quick start. The first week established the complexity in Sam Soon’s character not just based on her experience of a broken heart, but also with regards to the emotional turmoil that her status in life brings: she’s a Filipina in her 30’s, overweight, jobless, and is pressured to get married.

Sam Soon’s also ruled by the presence of a social climbing sister (who, strangely enough, is thin as a rail), a noisy nagger palengkera of a mother, and a dead father who leaves her with more than just memories. The latter leaves her family in debt – the one thing that pushes her to find a job, and enter a deal with new-found boss Cyrus – the least likeable leading man possible. This deal allows for her family to survive through the debt her father incurred, but is also the source of complexity in Sam Soon’s life, stuck as she suddenly is with a pretend-boyfriend and a real-life boss.

Regine Velasquez’s take on Sam Soon’s character is a refreshing one, willing as she was to look the part (complete with a fat suit and fat clothes, bad hair, and barely any make-up), and become as “fat” in terms of mannerisms and attitude. Watching Velasquez dive into an overflowing plate of rice and adobo, or filling her mouth with pastries, listening to her travails as a Pinoy single woman wanting to find the man of her dreams, or as a discriminated overweight Pinay, is surprisingly believable.

Mark Anthony Fernandez’s Cyrus meanwhile, is by turns a touching character and an irritating one – kindhearted when he wants to be, but absolutely antagonistic when he feels threatened by Sam Soon’s knowledge of his pusong mamon tendencies. Much of what happens between the characters of Cyrus and Sam Soon, is fodder for the comedy that happens in the show, a feat in itself for Velasquez whose only experience with acting has been for light drama movies that tend to repeat themselves. Fernandez’s take on Cyrus’ character is that of the conventional Pinoy male who refuses to be tied down, but likes having a woman swoon over him – if only to keep his confidence intact. This becomes the perfect opposite to Velasquez’s Sam Soon who, at her age, is so ready to believe that prince charming can come in any package – even the antagonistic one that Cyrus appears in.

If there’s anything that drags Ako si Kim Sam Soon down, it’s the minor story about Sam Soon’s sister, which takes up too much time and only seems like an effort at putting in some puppy love story to cater to an audience of a different age bracket. The thing is, the show barely needs this, as the complexities of Sam Soon’s and Cyrus’ lives can stand on their own. In fact the activities and characters that surround the hotel where they both work is contextually enough to keep the show interesting. And downright funny.

Director Dominic Zapata has said that Ako si Kim Sam Soon, unlike the top raters of primetime, is a “slow burn”. What it has become is a good slow burn. Because while I can already imagine the ending to the Filipinized version of My Girl – focused as it has become on the teenage love story/ies and celebrities it wants to sell – I can’t quite say for sure what will happen to Kim Sam Soon and Cyrus next week.

Now that’s a Filipinization that doesn’t sacrifice the complexity of character or plot, originally Korean as this was. In fact what it proves is that Filipinization gives way to a different kind of complexity, one that’s grounded in a culture that’s anything but Korean, and just might be able to tear apart the stereotypes of the Pinay and the lives that she’s expected to live. That can only be a good thing.

Posted in: kawomenan, kultura, review, star creation, TV

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