Three weeks into the pandemic three years ago, we were fellow “inmates,” stuck at home with nowhere to go. The Internet became a sanctuary of sorts. All of a sudden, we had become heavy creators on—and consumers of—social media.
It was around this time when we became enamored with, and shall we say, invested in the story of Cebu-based transwoman Jzan Vern Tero, who was catfished by multimedia artist Sam Morales. Tero shared her entire experience in a thread on social media platform X (formerly Twitter), detailing how Morales made her believe she was chatting with a man named Bill Iver Reyes for months.
So riveting and so movie-like was this series of online revelations, that director Quark Henares and his team at Anima Studios thought it would be perfect material for a full-length film.
Locally titled Marupok AF, Cinemalaya 2023's opening film Where is the Lie? made its debut at the Slamdance Film Festival, then Udine Film Festival in Italy, then the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, and then the New York Film Festival. It is now showing at the New York Festival of Cinema.
“I was at the NY and Slamdance, and the reception was really warm. Loved how people seemed so invested in the real story and what happened to the person Janzen was based on,” Henares said in an interview with PhilSTAR L!fe.
“(The) favorite thing I overheard was a lady saying ‘I just had a nervous breakdown in there,’ as she laughed. And super diverse, from catfishing victims to the queer community to cineastes and people interested in Philippine cinema in general,” he added.
In the film, the “hopeless romantic” transgender Janzen Torres (EJ Jallorina)—fresh from a breakup with her foreigner boyfriend—makes a stab at love anew when she finds a match on dating app Sinder. On the much-anticipated day of their meetup, her online boyfriend Theo Landridos (actually Dennis Balmaceda, portrayed by Royce Cabrera) ghosts her. And what follows is “an intricate web of deceit, lies, and catfishing led by sociopathic mastermind Beanie Landridos (Maris Racal),” according to a communique from the producers.
The biggest challenge a director (or a screenwriter for that matter) has to face when doing a biopic, or a film based on a true story—and in this case, one that a lot of people followed for weeks on end via social media—is how to present a narrative that’s true to the story the film is based on. At the same time, it should give enough room for the director and his crew to exercise creativity in the other aspects of the film.
It was apparently initially presented “Rashomon style.” According to Henares, it was originally “split into three differing parts, each of them from the points of view of Janzen, Dennis, then Beanie, and each having its own particular look and feel: Janzen’s story, a cheesy Philippine mainstream rom-com; Dennis’s, a social realist drama; and Beanie’s, a heist film.”
But through tweaking done with the First Cut Lab, it has become the “linear version,” where the POVs are “interspersed.”
In an interview with Asian Pulse TV, Henares said that throughout the screenwriting process, he (and presumably also co-writer John Bedia) were in touch with Tero.
The script was pretty much done when he/they had a chance to finally meet the real-life “perpetrator” (Morales). And that’s when Henares realized why Morales had lured several of her transgender victims into her scheme. “She was so charming, even self-deprecating.”
This belated encounter with Morales somehow helped in the execution of Beanie’s character, and Racal was perfect for the role: young, creative, impish, charming.
“Co-writer John Bedia and I sought to understand why bad things happen to good people, and why someone like Sam would do this for no apparent financial or career gain. Instead of offering a clear answer, we instead hint at multiple possible ones, with one apparent motivation clear: because it’s so much fun,” Henares stated in a press release.
Which makes us think: It is so hard to fully appreciate the motivation of Beanie. The people behind the film could have exercised “creative license” in coming up with a compelling back story, and shown it—maybe MMK or documentary style—as to why someone as demented and “messed up” person as Beanie would go to great lengths to catfish, and eventually destroy someone’s “pagkatao” just for kicks. The explanation somewhere that Beanie had previously been bullied by transgenders just doesn’t cut it.
It was so easy to be drawn—nay, sucked—into the story. The leads did pretty well. Just that masturbation scene in the restroom didn’t look convincing enough? It made us want to ask: What the hell is she doing?
The ending is empowering, with Janzen having the upper hand.
“In the end,” Henares said, “our aim is to provide an entertaining, unpredictable story that empowers the LGBTQIA+ community while also providing insight into the ways and means a sociopath runs a big con.” And that somewhere along the way, make people laugh.
But still, the question remains: Is comedy the best vehicle for such a sensitive, delicate topic? It is interesting to note that other competition films at this year's Cinemalaya opted to tackle equally sensitive topics (abuse) in an indirect way—and these are Carl Joseph Papa’s full-length Iti Mapukpukaw (animation), Daniel Magayon’s short Maudi Nga Aparaap (horror), Joshua Caesar Medroso’s short ‘Tong Adlaw Nga Nag-Snow sa Pinas, and Arvin Belarmino’s short Hinakdal (discrimination, with zombies as characters).
“We don’t know where [Marupok AF] is going after this. I’m just happy it finally screened at home,” Henares concluded.
The Cinemalaya Film Festival is ongoing until Sunday, Aug. 12. It closes with Dwein Baltazar’s Third World Romance: Love on a Budget on the same day.