WARNING: This article contains mild spoilers on Triangle of Sadness.
2022 has been a year unlike any other for the Philippines. The past year brought an unprecedented amount of Filipino actors to the international film scene. Leading the pack is Dolly de Leon as yacht cleaner Abigail in the Palme d’Or-winning satire Triangle of Sadness. As Abigail, de Leon showed the feisty resolve of an underdog waiting to be unleashed after a disruption in the social order. Together with other films this year discussing class divide like The Menu and Glass Onion, Triangle of Sadness struck a chord with audiences. With a slew of critics’ groups mentions, Dolly de Leon has entered the current Oscar nomination voting period strong: a LAFCA win, a Golden Globe nomination (a first for a Filipina), and a longlist mention at the BAFTAs. Any attention is much needed given a crowded Supporting Actress field.
But De Leon is not the only Filipino actor who enjoyed the spotlight this past year…
De Leon is not the only Filipino actor who enjoyed the spotlight this past year. Joining her are Chai Fonacier as a caregiver in the Eva Green thriller Nocebo, Soliman Cruz as a seafarer in the thriller To the North which premiered at Venice, Abigael Loma as a pregnant woman in the Independent Spirit-nominated horror Holy Emy, and Stefanie Arianne as a laborer in Plan 75, Japan’s official Oscar submission for International Feature Film. All of these actors have either been in critically acclaimed films or were singled out specifically for their work.
This goes for actors of Filipino descent based in or mostly working in Hollywood, too. Dave Bautista (Filipino-Greek descent) stars in the Netflix hit Glass Onion, Conrad Ricamora (Filipino-German-Irish) co-stars in the romantic comedy Fire Island, Manny Jacinto (Filipino-Chinese) appears in the box-office smash Top Gun: Maverick and in the streaming romcom I Want You Back, and Brandon Perea (Filipino-Puerto Rican) had his breakthrough role in Jordan Peele’s Nope.
This surge of representation in international productions is both sudden and long-overdue. While the last few years have seen a concerted push for Asian representation in film, that came with a caveat. Despite four million Filipinos residing in the USA (1.7 million of those in California alone), Filipino representation in film has been sorely lacking. Television does a better job but the overall landscape remains wanting in terms of giving Filipino actors opportunities.
In an interview on ANC, de Leon said:
“I hope that it’s that kind of moment that’s really sustainable and lasting. One that would allow other Filipino actors to follow suit. One where we are not just a trend that would not hit a lull after a while. I’m hoping that this would really be a door that will totally open the doors for all of our Filipino artists.”
De Leon, having full awareness of what her acclaim could mean to other Filipino actors, added:
“I am opening a door. Well, not just me. We’re quite a number. Soliman Cruz is opening a door, Ruby Ruiz is opening a door, Chai Fonacier. A lot of us are opening doors. I hope it will be sustained and I hope the perception of producers on us Filipino actors will change. We’re not just there to fill a blank space on the screen.”
THE OVERSEAS FILIPINO WORKER
Unlike their counterparts working in Hollywood, another thing that brings de Leon, Fonacier, Cruz, Loma, and Arianne together is that all of these actors portray overseas Filipino workers (or OFWs) or Filipinos in diaspora. Roughly 11-12 million Filipinos (around 10% of the population) are living overseas while roughly 2.2 million of those are overseas workers. In terms of gender, women accounted for 60.2% of the OFWs.
In fact, the sub-genre of films tackling the OFW experience or Filipino diaspora in general is a staple of Philippine cinema. Screen legend Vilma Santos has done it at least twice: in 2009’s In My Life and most notably in 2000’s Anak where she played an abused nanny in Hong Kong. Ditto Nora Aunor with 1984’s ‘Merika and in one of her most well-known roles, 1995’s The Flor Contemplacion Story, based on the real-life Filipina domestic helper who was executed in Singapore.
Others include Tony winner Lea Salonga in 1995’s Second Chances, Cherry Pie Picache in 2001’s New York-set sex comedy American Adobo, Sharon Cuneta’s mid-career comeback in 2008’s Caregiver, comedian Pokwang in her first dramatic film role in 2011’s A Mother’s Story, television veteran Jodi Sta. Maria in 2012’s Migrante, Irma Adlawan in 2013’s Israel-set Transit, Angeli Bayani in 2017’s independent drama Baggage, and Kathryn Bernardo’s 2019 romantic drama Hello, Love, Goodbye, to name a few.
But unlike these locally produced films, 2022’s wave of films centering on OFWs were largely non-Filipino productions. Triangle of Sadness and To the North came from Europe, Nocebo from Ireland, Holy Emy was a Greek-French-American production, and Plan 75 is from Japan.
Whether it is the difference in perspective or just the changing times, one thing is for sure: Dolly de Leon’s Abigail is unlike any other cinematic incarnation of the OFW that preceded her. Earlier depictions of the OFW were always laced with steadfast self-sacrifice as their defining quality, a take on tenacity and suffering that is distinctively Christian, female, and Filipino. Not Abigail.