Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Alyas Batman en Robin (Philippines, 1993)

As a follow-up to my review of Bedmen Yarasa Adam, I thought I'd delve a little further into the abuses that the Batman copyright has suffered at the hands of filmmakers from non-English speaking lands. Today's stop: the Philippines. The caped crusader has been a fairly steady fixture of that country's Tagalog language cinema over the years, being the subject of everything from the raucous pop culture parodies that Filipino audiences apparently never tire of to more sober, but no less unauthorized, treatments starting with the mid-sixties heyday of the American Batman TV series. Sadly many examples of such films -- including the original, 1965 version of Alyas Batman & Robin, 1967's Batman Fights Dracula, and 1973's Fight Batman Fight! -- appear to be among that large percentage of pre-EDSA Tagalog pop cinema that has since been lost to the combined forces of time and neglect. (One happy exception is Dolphy's irreverent 1966 spoof James Batman, which I reviewed for Teleport City last year.)

Thanks to its more recent vintage, the 1993 musical comedy Alyas Batman en Robin is probably the easiest to track down of all the Pinoy Bat-sploitation films -- not to mention the most widely reviewed. This is so much the case that I've never really made much of an effort to get my hands on it, secure in the knowledge that it would eventually fall into my lap one way or another. Well, that inevitable day has finally rolled around. And having now viewed Alyas Batman en Robin -- armed with the very low expectations that everything I'd heard about it seemed to justify -- I have to admit to being a bit surprised. Not that Alyas Batman en Robin is all that good, mind you. It's not. It's just that it ended up being fairly different from what I'd been lead to anticipate. This is largely due to the fact that, unlike its predecessors, Alyas is not an attempt to bring Batman and Robin's comic book world to the screen, but rather a tale of two doofy inhabitants of the everyday world -- the one in which Batman and Robin only exist in the comics -- who decide to take on the role of those fictional crime fighters in real life.

Alyas stars popular Filipino comedian and television presenter Joey de Leon, here continuing a string of successful pop culture spoofs that included Sheman: Mistress of the Universe and the Starzan films, both of which were helmed by Alyas director Tony Y. Reyes. This time around, De Leon costars with his own son, actor and singer Keempee de Leon, playing -- I think -- the role of De Leon Junior's elder sibling. (Keempee's character refers to De Leon Senior as "Kuya", a Tagalog term that, while literally translating as "big brother", can also refer to an elder male relative from the extended family.) Kempee portrays Kevin, a bookish college student and closet comic enthusiast, who -- when a gang of run-of-the-mill crooks assume the guises of The Joker, The Penguin and Catwoman to commit a series of bank robberies -- convinces his Kuya Joey to join him in becoming a real world dynamic duo. The two commit to this task the best efforts that they're resources will allow, constructing a makeshift Batcave in Joey's garage and customizing a less-than-supercharged approximation of the Batmobile using one of their own cars. This aspect of Alyas' story represents a rare instance of a Filipino film's low production values being a source of intentional humor, as Joey-cum-Batman and Kevin-cum-Robin's low-rent creations are meant to look every bit as cheesy as they appear.

While Joey and Kevin's fumblings in their attempts to personify Batman and Robin provide for a lot of Alyas Batman en Robin's comedy -- the exaggerated stiffness that Joey De Leon affects whenever he's in his Batsuit, for instance, is actually quite funny -- it's important to note that, for the most part, they're heroic exploits are successful, and result in their masked alter-egos being celebrated by the grateful populace of their city. In this sense, Alyas is far less the cut-rate knock-off of the original Batman that you might expect, and is instead a full-fledged appropriation and culturally-informed repurposing of the character; In other words, not the whitebread Batman of the comics, but a Batman born specifically of the Philippines, with a distinct Pinoy identity. This kind of cheeky hijacking of Western pop totems is one of the things I love most about Tagalog pop cinema. While Turkish films, for example, were equally profligate in their blatant borrowing of characters from Western films and comics -- and did end up doing some culturally-motivated retooling of those characters -- they seemed to be doing so for mainly mercenary purposes, while Filipino film's borrowing of such characters often seemed to have a far more transformative -- and even subversive -- intent. One can't really find a better example of this than Filipino film and comic book heroine Darna, a rural reinterpretation of Wonder Woman who acts as a savior to the poor residents of her small village.

While providing us with a fair amount of the biff-bang-pow action that one would expect from a Batman movie, Alyas Batman en Robin also goes about the business of being a romantic comedy. Young Kevin finds, much to his delight, that the object of his heretofore unrequited love, Vina (Vina Morales), has become besotted with Robin, but is foiled in his attempts to reveal his identity to her by the arrival on the scene of a flock of would-be suitors in Robin costumes. Meanwhile, Joey falls for Angelique (Dawn Zulueta), the genre-requisite "plucky girl reporter" hell-bent on getting the scoop on Batman's true identity. Eventually his romantic frustrations lead to him having a "dark night" of the soul of his own, with the result that Robin is left to fend for himself against the gang of costumed criminals. Eventually the pair rallies in time for a triumphant third act confrontation with the forces of evil, clearing the way for a chirpy, all singing, all dancing finale.

A staple of Joey de Leon's comedy act was his song parodies, which involved him singing his own putatively comical words to the tunes of popular oldies. With the exception of one, very eighties-sounding power ballad sung by Keempee de Leon and Vina Morales, these are the type of songs that comprise Alyas' several musical numbers. A training montage early in the film that features Kevin and Joey getting fit for their superheroic duties is accompanied by a tune lifted from the Beach Boys' "Surfin' Safari", to which off-screen vocalists sing:

"Holy smokes, Batman and RobinOh my God, Batman and RobinPraise the Lord, Batman and RobinShoot, man, shoot, Batman and RobinLet's do Bruce Wayne nowAnd Dick Grayson nowThey are a part of me!"

The Joker (Filipino comedian and frequent De Leon sidekick Rene Requiestas in his final film role) and the Penguin (beloved comic actor Panchito) are incapable of pulling off a robbery without a bit of song and dance, and their spirit is so infectious that the besieged bank tellers and customers can't help but join in and act as their chorus line. Finally, everything comes to a silly karaoke-esque head with a closing number in which the principles -- heroes and villains alike -- are joined by dancers costumed as various superheroes (midget Spider-man!) to caper about and sing to the tune of "At The Hop":

"Let's be good, not bad
Let us not be bad
Let's be afraid of God
Let's believe in love!"

In contrast to the more anarchic, seemingly Mad Magazine-inspired style of the earlier James Batman, Alyas Batman en Robin is a gentler breed of Bat-comedy altogether, redolent of goofy sweetness and bearing an earnest up-with-people message at its core. We've seen this kind of apirational comic fantasy before, with its riffing on everyday folks' use of popular fantasy heroes as repositories for their better selves. (Takashi Miike's Zebraman comes immediately to mind.) However, Alyas' intellectual-property-law-flaunting use of an actual, very recognizable piece of "real world" pop iconography disarmingly strips away a layer of artifice that those other films have to employ out of legal necessity, making possible an identification with the schleppy protagonists that is that much more poignant and immediate. It also doesn't hurt that the lead performers -- by which I refer to the DeLeons, both junior and senior, and Dawn Zulueta -- are all thoroughly likeable (and in Zuleuta's case, knee-tremblingly gorgeous in the bargain).

Again, this is not to say that Alyas Batman en Robin is a particularly good film. To be honest, it's startlingly amateurish on many levels and as hokey as all get out. Still, I think that, if you're willing to give it a chance, you'll find that it has quite a bit more to offer than what you might have read about it elsewhere on the internets would lead you to believe.

Ah, the glory days of print media.


Tars Tarkas said...

I watched this last month (and my review is in rough draft form) and I think Mad Magazine is a pretty good way to describe the film. The song sequences are just completely loopy, yet they'll soon be in my iPod along with the Shaitani Dracula theme and the Connie Chan songs from Lady Black Cat.

Prof. Grewbeard said...

for some reason i couldn't take this one, maybe because of it's decade of origin...

Keith said...

Back when this movie first popped up in my collection, we rolled with it pretty well, maybe got a little bored in spots (crappy vhs dupe, no translation, so on and so forth). Then Midget Spider-Man danced onto the screen...and into our hearts.

Anonymous said...

Hi guys, Any download link for this movie?