Review by Ed Nguyen
Danté Basco, Tirso Cruz III, Bernadette Balagtas, Eddie Garcia, Joy Bisco,
Director: Gene Cajayon
Audio: English 2.0 Surround
Subtitles: English, Tagalog, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Columbia Tri Star
Features: Director commentary, Making-Of documentary, deleted scenes, gag reel, two short films, four featurettes, trailers and TV spots
Length: 88 minutes
Release Date: September 9, 2003
up, little brother, 'cause you know what, you're just as brown as the rest of
first glance, seems like any other generic teen flick of the day.
It deals with a headstrong but misunderstood teen-ager caught between his
aspirations and his parents' own ideas about his future.
There are the usual, well-meaning friends with their worldly advice, the
typical sub-plot about a new girlfriend, and a love rival who also happens to be
a bully. Other genre clichés
abound, such as a hip-hop soundtrack and dance routines and even a few muscle
cars. If The
Debut sounds like a mishmash of everything from The
Karate Kid to The Fast and the Furious,
that's because it probably is. I
must admit that several times early in the film, I was even tempted to pop the
disc right out of the DVD player altogether and to watch something different.
I didn't. I stayed with The
Debut to its conclusion and was pleasantly surprised to realize that I had
enjoyed the film. Hidden within
this independently-produced but mainstream-minded film is an honest and at times
insightful presentation of the dilemmas facing minority communities today.
Debut is the
first movie by Filipino-American director Gene Cajayon.
It is also the first U.S. film about Filipino-Americans at all.
As an eight-year labor of love for Cajayon, The
Debut may have begun as one man's dream but eventually became the center of
attention within the Filipino-American community, which ultimately endorsed the
Debut, in a sense, provides an introduction for mainstream movie-goers to
one of the many ethnic subsets of America's multi-cultured people.
film's main character is Ben (Danté Basco), an aspiring young artist.
He has just been accepted into Cal Arts and hopes to someday earn a
living with his creative talents. His
father, however, feels strongly otherwise.
He urges his son to accept a sensible scholarship to UCLA instead and to
become a doctor. This central
conflict between father and son is a major source of tension throughout the
film, and in the early portions of the film, actually paints Ben in a
not-altogether likable manner.
fact, Ben comes across early on as exasperatingly stubborn and even selfish in
that classic teen-age mode. Besides
from drawing all day, he ignores his chores and would rather hang out with his Caucasian
buddies than help in the current preparations for his sister's upcoming
debutante ball. In favoring a
beer-and-keg party that evening over a more traditional Filipino social
gathering, Ben is making strides to estrange himself from his family, and his
egocentric behavior does little to paint him in a sympathetic light.
be frank, the true problem with Ben (aside from any normal teenaged angst) is
one to which many Asian-American adolescents may relate.
Ben is caught between his traditional Filipino upbringing and the
American culture of his adopted homeland. He
wants to belong, but in doing so he sacrifices his heritage and perhaps his
own sense of identity. Unlike his
sister, Rose (Bernadette Balagtas), he cannot speak Tagalog (the native language
of the Philippines) and he prefers to emulate the "white boys."
The Debut, then, is on the one hand a story about the debutante
party for Ben's sister but, on the other hand, the internal journey that Ben
must take before he can realize that his search for independence and a personal
voice need not necessarily mean abandoning his Filipino roots.
does come to his senses somewhat and attends Rose's party, where friends and
family arrive and there are Filipino dishes aplenty to be eaten.
After dinner, entertainment is provided by traditional costume dances.
Rose performs these routines with a group of other young
Filipino-Americans, among them the very pretty Annabelle (Joy Bisco), whose
ex-boyfriend Augusto (Darion Basco) is also in attendance at the party.
Ben's two open-minded Caucasian friends eventually show up as well,
having been called secretly by Ben to pick up him for the keg party, but they
surprise Ben by deciding instead to stay for a while and to enjoy the
were two scenes in the film which especially appealed to me.
One involves Rose's traditional dance.
Not only is it a lovely performance, but the fact that everyone is
enjoying the entertainment, including Ben's two friends, makes Ben feel somehow
confused and left out, an outsider peering in upon everyone else's fun.
It is a subtle turning point in the film, signaling Ben's gradual
realization that perhaps he is wrong to distance himself so much from his own
other affecting scene is a serenade which Ben's father sings to his wife and
debutante daughter. It is quite
sweet and reveals an artistic aspect of the father's past that had not been
mentioned before. We'll learn later
that perhaps, despite their generational gap, Ben and his father are not so
different from one another. His
father once had dreams of his own, too, but sacrificed them for the sake of his
family. He chose responsibility
over his own aspirations, and in time, Ben will have to make the same decision.
Whichever path he chooses, Ben will have to face up to disappointment,
either within himself or to his family. No
one ever said the choices in life were simple.
film also touches upon issues of race but does not do so in a derogatory way.
Race here is more about culture shock and learning to integrate the
better qualities of different ethnicities.
Ben and Augusto are polar extremes, but each has handled the race issue
somewhat poorly. While Ben is almost ashamed of being Filipino, Augusto has
embraced only the bad elements of Filipino-American youth life (gang warfare,
for instance). Even so, Augusto has
a point when he accuses Ben of being a sell-out: "Who do you roll with that
of The Debut's strong points is the
complexity of its family dynamics. Tirso
Cruz III is quite believable as Ben's stern but well-meaning father, as is
Filipino acting icon Eddie Garcia as Ben's grandfather.
Danté Basco, as Ben, imparts the contradictory nature of adolescence
that makes young folks seem so infuriatingly unlikable at one moment and then
quite charismatic the next. These
are three-dimensional characters, and The
Debut shows courage in portraying their imperfections and their relative
openness to change.
the film does make some concessions towards a young demographic audience.
There is a showdown on the basketball court, several meet-cute encounters
between Ben and Annabelle, and the obligatory fight scene with the ex-boyfriend.
There is also a fun but unnecessary boys-vs.-girls hip-hop dance showdown
as well as the typical, arrogant ghetto-talk.
Frankly, The Debut is at its
best when it deals with family issues and the unique qualities of the
Filipino-American community, and Cajayon's film would have been just fine if he
had only trusted this core material a bit more without resorting to some tired
or not The Debut jumpstarts a budding
interest in Asian-American cinema remains to be seen. But, it is an earnest testimony to the dreams of a determined
director who persevered over all the usual obstacles and Hollywood indifference
to make the film that he wanted to make. And
that, at the very least, is an optimistic start.
presented in an anamorphic widescreen format.
The video quality is bright and cheerful and reflects the film's primary
color scheme of red, yellow, and blue. The
picture image is sharp and detailed with only minimal grain and no real
compression artifacts. For an
independent film, The Debut looks
predominately an English-language film, with occasional subtitled passages in
Tagalog. There are, in fact, six
different language options for subtitles, which is more than I've seen on any
one DVD in quite some time. It
certainly does support Cajayon's wish to make the film as accessible to as many
ethnic groups as possible. The
audio itself is only available in 2.0 surround, a reminder of the film's low
budget, but is otherwise just fine.
relatively short length has freed up a lot of space on the DVD, which happily
has been utilized for a wide array of extra features.
First up, there is a commentary track by director Gene Cajayon and his
screenwriter, John Manal Castro. They
have a lot of energy and talk constantly, so there is hardly a moment of silence
in this fairly entertaining commentary. Furthermore,
they avoid the usual self-congratulatory quotes in favor of interesting trivia
about scenes, the actors, Filipino reactions to the film, and even flubs in the
are some deleted scenes, which are six in number. They include an alternate opening, a touching scene between
Ben's parents, a traditional dance, and then a trio of forgettable scenes which
were rightfully cut.
viewers who love film bloopers, there is a fun but short gag reel.
For viewers who want to see even more gags, there is a hidden easter egg.
Go to the "Special Features" menu, highlight the
"trailers" tab, and push the left button.
An "oink" balloon is revealed which, when clicked upon, opens
the easter egg. This secret treat
is a short featurette (5 min.) acknowledging many of the people who offered
their time and efforts to the film; better yet, it also contains hilarious
parodies (performed by the crew and volunteers) of a number of scenes from the
film itself. Take a look - it's
quite a riot.
Making-Of documentary (21 min.) takes
viewers on a journey from the early days of The
Debut's pre-production through all the myriad headaches of filming until
finally arriving at the film's big screen premiere. Cajayon talks about the sense of family and camaraderie that
developed between everyone involved in the production, which truly became a
community film. Coincidentally, the
documentary also mentions that The Debut
was named Best Feature Film at the San Diego Asian Film Festival and beat out Crouching
Tiger, Hidden Dragon for Audience Favorite at another film festival.
Little Film That Could: Touring the Country (8 min.) chronicles some of the extraordinary lengths by which
volunteers promoted The Debut
throughout the nation's largest cities. Considering
that The Debut had an advertising
budget of approximately zero dollars, these volunteers really took Cajayon's
example to heart in generating as much interest in the film as possible on their
DVD includes two brief one-reelers which can be considered early studies for The
Debut. The first is the original Debut
short, a student film that Cajayon screened frequently to prospective investors
to obtain financial backing for his feature-length film.
The second is Diary of a Gangsta Sucka, another student film, this time by John
Manal Castro; this film offers a faux documentary look at one day in the life of
a Filipino gang member.
on, there are three quickie featurettes collectively entitled "The Mercado
Files." Each is 2-3 minutes in
length. The Debut Music shows some of the bands whose music was used for the
soundtrack. The Art of The Debut gives some of the actual artists a chance to
talk about the film's artwork. Lastly,
The Basco Brothers sits all four
brothers down on a couch so they can mock each other about their individual
roles in the film.
we come to the ad campaign portfolio. For
The Debut, there are three TV spots
and the original trailer. Masochistic
viewers can also take a peek at terrible trailers for a pair of truly heinous
films - Can't Hardly Wait and Hollywood