The narrative centrepiece of Anita’s Last Cha Cha is the story promised in the title: a coming-of-age tale of a young tomboy’s first tumble into love after a local beauty returns to their village, Obando in the Philippines, from a mysterious absence. The film carries much more, however. Director Sigrid Andrea Bernando emphasised respect for female choice – “especially in poverty” –, tradition and ritual, and the complexity of desire alongside queerness and first love as the focuses of the film. Anita’s Last Cha Cha carries the weight of this impressive thematic complexity without once faltering, aided by cinematography and production that surge past the usual expectations of a comparatively low-budget feature.
The film is reminiscence, not a history piece. The main narrative is bracketed by scenes of the present-day Anita (played Jay Bordon with Teri Malvar playing the characters younger version), apparently a drill sergeant in the army, who is cast back into the memory of her first love by a late cadet. The adult Anita hammers the late arrival in front of her peers until she admits she was late because she was meeting her boyfriend in the cafeteria. The scene is a narrative outlier, but one which immediately sets a strong tone, both dramatic and humorous. Anita’s questions – “why do you like him, cadet? What else?” – have more than a touch of stereotypical military-bullying about them at first, especially with the stress carved into the cadet’s face and the giggling onlookers. But after her late cadet shouts back – “his tantalising eyes, ma’am!” “his kissable lips, ma’am!” – Anita finally concludes by asking if she is ‘sure about him.’ When the cadet answers that he is the one she will marry, Anita hides a sudden, gentle smile and allows the cadet back into the formation. The cadet’s declaration is the point of connection between past and present. Anita lapses back into her own memory of declaring the same, as a girl pushing from childhood to adolescence who found herself suddenly grasped by the surety of love: “she’s the girl I’m going to marry!”
Anita’s romantic fixation is Pilar (Angel Aquino), a grown woman who has just returned to Obando with a degree in Physical Therapy from an overseas university and the intention of resettling into the village after years away. Anita’s fascination with Pilar is shared in part by her two playmates, Goying (Solomon Mark de Guzman) and Carmen (Lenlen Frial). Carmen, who has just started wearing a training bra and is preoccupied with the idea of growing up, is mesmerised by Pilar as the image of ideal womanhood, while Goying announces that she is “like tummy gas” because she gives him a funny feeling in the stomach.
The dynamic between the three children is incredibly enjoyable to watch. The young actors give engaging and impressive performances and it’s their frequent hilarity – particularly Carmen and Goying – which anchors the mood. Watching Pilar go about her day-to-day becomes one of their pastimes. They are alternately alarmed and awed by her beauty and apparent independence, and oblivious to her social ostracisation. She seems like a different sort of women entirely to them. She is nothing like their mothers who are older; who chastise them for staying out late; who have husbands and sons and each other. Pilar lives alone and she rounds on the men who whistle her as she cuts down a palm on her property, holding a machete aloft while calling out at their retreating backs, “You whistle at me as if I was a dog – how about I cut your balls off?”After a while, she becomes a sometimes-playmate for the three. Of course, it is with Anita that she becomes especially close. The character of Anita’s devotion shifts with the narrative. The initially endearing crush moves through stages, from amusingly overt to slightly uncomfortable. It is the genesis for what eventually becomes a genuine friendship between herself and the isolated Pilar.
Her childish oblivion makes her attentions somewhat intrusive or inappropriate for much of the film, but a fan/heartthrob dynamic keeps the mood light. It also works to place Anita’s first intense homosexual desire into a widely accessible discourse of mainstream adolescent sexuality. The archetypal relation hinges on both distance and immediacy which allows youthful desire to be expressed, but mediated, through idolised others and fanatic devotion. In Anita’s Last Cha Cha, director Sigrid Andrea Bernando employs the dynamic to avoid over-sexualising or sanitising the relationship between Anita and Pilar. Bernando quite faithfully represents the desire a 12 year-old might have – vigorous and stirring but still inchoate, naïve and often sweet.
That the film does such justice to a queer adolescent desire is all the more impressive because of the emotional breadth and social complexity it delivers around this central arc. The community of local women – the mothers of Anita’s peers, especially – are remarkably well-developed as background characters and their scenes are executed with a sense of intimacy that is both pragmatic and affectionate. They provide social context for the unfolding narrative around Pilar, who they exclude, and for the developing identities of Anita, Goying and Carmen. Anita’s mother, Lolita (Lui Manansala), and her adult cousin, Oscar (Marcus Madrigal), are particularly compelling and cohesive characters.
Lolita is initially the strict, nagging authority curtailing Anita’s freedom, while Oscar is her ally against her mother’s curtailments. Anita’s father has died years earlier. She talks to a photo of him, asking him to soften her mother. And Lolita does soften: she eventually and unexpectedly accepts her daughter’s attraction to Pilar. It happens in a well-acted and bittersweet exchange between the two, where Lolita asks Anita to relent and come to the local fertility dance. Lolita is gentle rather than strict in the exchange, delivering a vulnerable monologue that recalls the way Anita addressed the picture of her father. She offers Anita a new t-shirt to wear to the dance instead of a dress, a gesture of reconciliation and love that is symbolic as well as material. Oscar also has a reasonably complex narrative and background; they intertwine with Pilar’s, threading together with her social alienation and absence to lead to the jarring revelation that concludes Anita’s reminiscence and the film. It is a genuinely impressive feat of film-making that there are so many worthy characters and themes and almost none of them feel underdone.
Indeed, there is only one criticism that could be levelled at Anita’s Last Cha Cha on this account and it’s the objectification of Pilar. The confronting conclusion of the film leaves her fate unknown, in a way that felt slightly careless – it seems likely to have been an intentional choice, underscoring the unwitting carelessness of her peers. There are number of fantasy-sequences about Pilar which are melded into Anita’s interactions as short divergences from reality. Most of these fantasies are built seemingly tongue-in-cheek from a blueprint: slow motion, long hair rippling, smiles spreading, and the body of the other suddenly welcoming. There is a reproduction of a legible, hetero-normative sexiness that is compounded by the gendering of Anita and her desire as masculine. It remains endearing at points and, viewed differently, could be part of a progressive or fluid representation of gender. However, the affectionate characterisation of Anita as ‘handsome’ and a ‘gentleman’ and her adoption of a less feminine position in courting Pilar become uncomfortable in their interaction with Pilar’s sexual objectification.
Yet, although it seems that the responsibility for her objectification lies with her community on-screen and the camera otherwise, it would obtuse to place issue such a criticism without acknowledging that on-screen objectification is a problem originates elsewhere – not in the films made by female directors about identity, grief, poverty, love, abuse and sexuality in their own communities. There is a decisive awareness and intentionality throughout the film. If her character suffered for it, it was deliberate, if discomforting. To contain the multitudes that the film does, and to move between them with such intuitive ease, is an unusual pleasure for a viewer and a testament to the skill of Sigrid Andrea Bernando as director. Anita’s Last Cha Cha captures the excruciating, exhilarating quality of a first love without sacrificing any detail in its female-focused portraits of intimacy and community in the rural Philippines.