When it comes to breakout feature films, heart, spirit and novelty, aka “freshness” trumps almost everything else.
Show us a world that most of us have had no entre to, populate it with colorful characters and try to err on the side of “sweet” and a whole lot of sins can be brushed over in the viewing.
“The Fabulous Filipino Brothers” is in the spirit of “Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads,” the Indian-American “ABCD,” the Koreans-in-LA “Gook,” the Native American “Smoke Signals” or Latino LA’s “Real Women Have Curves.”
The acting ranges from broad to amateurish. The dialogue and plotting is often on the clumsy side. And there’s a narrow point of view to it that flirts with piggish male wish fulfilment fantasy more than once. But it’s almost sure to leave you with a grin and a new appreciation for another culture introduced via cinema.
Veteran bit player turned director and co-writer Dante Brasco gives us a “Brothers McMullen” version of his life with his siblings, an exaggerated and amusing view of the dynamics of a “typical” sprawling, striving Filipino-American family delivered in an uneven but winning film.
He also co-stars in the film, as “Duke,” the “lucky” brother with a high-paying job, an Anglo wife and teen crush he never got over whom he “luckily” runs into on his first visit to the Philippines. Well, “lucky” for him, anyway.
But Dante wisely makes this one of the shorter episodes in this five part “This is what our lives are like” depiction of this Pittsburg (“The one without the ‘h’.”) California brood.
Derek Brasco plays Dayo, “like the Harry Belafonte song,” the eldest, a rotund hustler who takes on responsibilities because he sees their first-generation immigrant parents getting older and it’s expected of him. In the film’s opening episode, Dayo stumbles and skips through ways to raise the funds to pay for a big family wedding, hilariously tumbling into delivering a rooster to a cockfight, with his granny as a reluctant sidekick.
No, we don’t see the cockfight, or the poker game that was Dayo’s first idea for financing this new obligation. He’s mainly here to react and “explain” this culture, lecturing his pragmatic Chinese-American wife (Cheryl Tsai) about the difference between “my people” and “other Asians.
“We’re JUNGLE Asians,” perhaps the most thought-provoking label in the film.
Most of the explaining here is done in voice-over by the four brothers’ sister, Dores (co-writer Arianna Basco). Filipinos “love karaoke, the cha-cha and gambling,” she declares. The brothers? They’re “the reliable one, the funny one, the lucky one and the dark one.” “Fabulous Filipino Brothers” lets us see how each lives up or down to that label.
The family scenes bubble over with life, even as the occasional performer in them makes us think “This is the first time he/she has ever been in front of a camera,” even as the dialogue has the odd ESL-level clinker line.
The brothers are mostly just “types” who embody their labels, but their stories are distinct and delightful in their own ways. “The funny one,””little brother” David (Dionysio Brasco) seems aimless, a spoiled slacker/stoner. But he is catnip to the ladies, and we’re treated not just to his laugh-out-loud seduction dance with an interested would-be partner at the dinner buffet, but his flippant intervention in the problems of “The Dark One” (Darion Basco). Danny, the “broken” second-oldest brother, is a guy who never got over being jilted two years before and who has lost himself in brooding solitude (in the big extended family house), composing moody electronic music to mask the pain.
The quartet has great chemistry, and if the script is seriously sexist, it at least has the good manners to acknowledge that in Dora’s voice-over and belated third act appearance in their tale.
And there’s a glorious flippancy to all this, an acceptance of being “different” but also being a mash-up of various Asian and North American cultures in their California guise — yakuza, Triad jokes, lots of wisecracks about their native language, Tagalog, which none of the brothers, or any of their generational peers, mastered.
“Hey, I don’t SPEAK Manny Pacquiao!”
All these disparate boons, bonuses and bungles combine to make “The Fabulous Filipino Brothers” a film that transcends it failings and becomes not just funny and warm enough to work, but a cultural touchstone, a movie well worth dropping in on if you enjoyed any of other “cultures among us” comedies that preceded it.
Rating: unrated, profanity, drugs, sexual situations
Cast: Dante Brasco, Derek Brasco, Dionysio Brasco, Darion Brasco and Ariana Brasco
Credits: Directed by Dante Brasco, scripted by Arianna Brasco, Darion Brasco and Dante Brasco. A 1091 release.
Running time: 1:38