Movie Review: Ekstra (The Bit Player) (2013)
Loida (Vilma Santos), the working class, single mother of a college-age daughter, has a dream. She’s a bit player or “ekstra” on the cheesy, night-time soap operas of the Philippines, but she wants more. She wants a speaking part. She wants to break through. She wants to be a star.
So like everyone, more or less.
“The Bit Player” (“Ekstra” in the Philippines) is essentially a cinema-vérité-like day in the life of Loida. It begins at 2 a.m. with tea, breakfast, and a washcloth shower, and ends at 4 a.m. the next day with the stink of failure.
Among the extras
There’s an early morning round-up of the extras, who travel by van to the location shoot. A few are discharged en route: a young boy, for example, who’s supposed to be the younger version of the male lead in the soap (Piolo Pascual, playing himself), but who, according to the talent scout, doesn’t look enough like Piolo. Out he and his father go, onto the side of the road.
At the shoot, the extras find no place for themselves—this area is for the stars, this area is for the caterers—so they wind up sitting in a field. Among them:
- Loida, our sympathetic mother figure, whose daughter keeps texting with money demands from the university.
- Venus (Rita Rosario G. Carlos), the brassy friend of, and quiet competition to, Loida.
- Olga (Hazel Dela Cruz), the girl too pretty for peasant scenes. She’s too pretty for the name “Olga,” too.
- Madonna (Antonette Garcia), who makes a buck on the side selling food and drinks to the other extras.
The soap is like most soaps: the loves and schemes of awful rich folks. Belinda (Marian Rivera), the wealthy daughter, is in love with Brando (Piolo), the peasant stud, but ordered to marry Sir Richard (Richard Yap) for the sake of the family. The extras toil in the fields wearing conical hats or bring product-placement drinks in maid’s uniforms. They’re background. As the casting director tells them, “You’re called ‘talent’ but you lack talent.”
The production team has its own conflicts. The director has to deliver quickly, while the producer is interested in cutting costs. He wants it good, she wants it fast and cheap, but it often winds up out of control. The stars act like stars—leaving and arriving on a whim. One time, Loida has to double for a star who’s gone missing. It’s a kidnap scene. Filmed from behind and tied to a chair, it’s supposed to be a speaking part (extra money), but, no, Loida doesn’t sound like the star. So the director has her gagged. But too much of her face is still visible so he has her hooded as well. After that, she’s slapped, kicked, burned with a cigarette. One of the production people tells her of her dress, “Take care of this: It’s more valuable than you.”
Eventually it all pays off. Late into the night and the early morning, a call goes up for an extra who can speak English reasonably well to play a lawyer. This one is no good, that one, eh ... but Loida? A shrug from the assistant director. She’ll do. The rehearsal goes well, or well enough for a night-time soap opera filming 24 hours from air time. The first take goes less well: Loida walks too far forward and blocks the star from the camera. She’s given a mark to hit but on the next take looks down to find it. The third take she messes up her lines. Finally the director loses it and she’s cast aside: back to the background. She’s not cut out for it. Maybe she never was.
Streep and Schwarzenegger
For most of “Ekstra,” I was only vaguely interested in what was happening. A lot of work, a lot of arguments, a lot of ego, went into the creation of something that was not only valueless to the culture but detrimental. Product placement is the least of it; soap operas, like most movies, sell wish fulfillment. They sell the dream of wealth, beauty, and glamor. At the same time, they sell schadenfreude, as the wealthy, beautiful and glamorous feel the heartache implicit in soap opera storylines.
I also objected when Loida began to stumble during her big scene. It felt way too cruel to me. It felt sadistic and/or bathetic. But ultimately Santos has a restraint that makes it work. You sense Loida’s world has crumbled but she doesn’t know what to do. There’s doubt and pain in her eyes now.
Interestingly, Santos, who looks like the part she plays—someone passed over by life—is in reality a hugely successful actress and politician. She was the Mayor of Lipa City and the Governor of Batangas, a province in the Philippines. There are four major film awards in the Philippines and only 17 times has someone won all four in the same year. It’s called the Philippines Movie Grand Slam, and Santos was the first to do it in 1982. She’s since done it three more times. No one else in Philippines has done it more than twice. She’s basically the Meryl Streep and the Arnold Schwarzenegger of the Philippines.
“The Bit Player,” at 111 minutes, could’ve been 20 minutes shorter. We could’ve used fewer on-set shenanigans and more on Loida’s background. How did she get on this path that’s apparently so wrong for her? And what happens next? Forget a dream deferred—what happens to a dream dashed on the rocks? What do you do when you realize you’re no good at what you’ve struggled for your entire life? We never find out.
Soap operas may be about wish-fulfillment fantasy, but “The Bit Player” is about identification, and never more so than when Loida is surrounded by the stink of failure. Most of us know that smell. Well.