Pepe Smith is a Joey Smith Impersonator in This Poignant, Existential Indie
It’s a little confusing at first: The Pepe Smith we know—a real-life Filipino rock legend who, in real life, also goes by the name Joey Smith—plays the fictional Pepe Madrigal, a professional impersonator of the also-fictional Filipino rock legend, Joey Smith.
Such is the premise of Singing In Graveyards, the award-winning debut feature film of 27-year-old Malaysia-born, Manila-based director Bradley Liew. Singing In Graveyards was an entry into the Critic’s Week of the Venice Film Festival last year, and has also been selected for various international film festivals since. It’s seeing a wider theatrical release in the Philippines for the first time this week, and anyone who’s been watching the recent surge of local cinema would do well to go out and see it.
The film is essentially a portrait of the character Pepe Madrigal who, after decades of impersonating a washed-up rockstar named Joey Smith, begins to struggle with his own identity as he drifts along into old age and comes face-to-face with his failures.
This is accomplished throughout a rather sparse plot: After the death of one of his old bandmates, Joey Smith attempts to stage a comeback concert, for which he hires Joey Smith impersonators. Pepe is then contacted by his manager Paul (played by Lav Diaz, who is a purposely ironic casting choice) to be one of those impersonators, with the stipulation that Pepe writes a song for Joey without any credit.
The movie spreads this story thin across its slightly overlong two-hour runtime, dwelling mostly in Pepe’s struggle to write a love song for the concert, and in the depth of his personal failure to achieve any form of real self-actualization.
There’s a strange, dream-like incoherence to most of the film
Because he’s spent most of his life as an impersonator, Pepe now reckons with the resentment of his ex-wife (played by Susan Africa) and his son (played by Ely Buendia). His struggle is mirrored by Mercedes (also an eponymous character played by Mercedes Cabral), who cares for Pepe while tending to a fledgling career as an actress. Like Pepe, Mercedes undergoes her own crisis of identity, as she is often mistaken for a bold star named Nadine, and so cannot be taken seriously by casting directors.
Although the real value of Singing In Graveyards isn’t as much in the story itself, but in the way it tells that story. There’s a strange, dream-like incoherence to most of the film: Pepe walks out of his home and into a crowded party, or suddenly straight into the feminist art exhibit of his ex-wife. At times, a baby goat will walk into the frame and it seems like only Pepe can see it (this is probably a metaphor with some arthouse interpretation that flew over a lot of heads, ours included). Pepe also seems to teeter into dementia in some scenes, likely due to his disillusionment. This overall surrealness (along with the meta confusion of character names) causes you to wonder throughout if Pepe is not actually Joey, and if Mercedes is not actually Nadine. Or are you just overthinking it all? The movie never clearly resolves these questions, but perhaps because it doesn’t, Singing In Graveyards is even more effective as an abstract, lyrical contemplation of identity and mortality.
But apart from all its layers and its metaphors and its thematic depth, the film has value yet to spare. It’s a gorgeous movie, with particularly noteworthy attention to production design. The slow and steady camera beautifully frames the mess of Pepe’s life, reflected by the dark corners of his home, which has little action figures of himself and champorado bowls scattered around. The film also benefits from a thoroughly enjoyable performance by the real Pepe Smith, who slurs his way through it with a vague believability and an earnestness that slowly reels you into the tragedy of his character’s existence.
Singing In Graveyards has been well-received at international film festivals for good reason: it’s a poignant and beautiful examination of the tail-end of a failed man’s life. And while it may very well lose its broader audiences in the depth and surrealism, it certainly has a lot to offer.
Singing In Graveyards' Philippine theatrical release runs from September 29 to October 5, 2017 at SM Mall of Asia, North EDSA, Megamall, Fairview, Southmall, Bacoor, IloIlo and Cebu. Visit the film's Facebook page for more information.