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THE DEBUT

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Danté Basco, Tirso Cruz III, Bernadette Balagtas, Eddie Garcia, Joy Bisco, Darion Basco
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

"Wake up, little brother, 'cause you know what, you're just as brown as the rest of us."

Film ***

The Debut, at 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.

Fortunately, 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.

The 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 project.  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.

The 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.

In 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.

To 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.

Ben 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 festivities.

There 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 rich heritage.

The 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.

The 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 ain't white?"

One 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.

Still, 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 clichés.

Whether 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.

Video *** 1/2

The Debut is 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 pretty good.

Audio ***

The Debut is 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.

Features ***

The Debut's 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 production itself.

Next 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.

For 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.

The 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.

The 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 own.

The 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.

Moving 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.

Finally, 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 Homicide.

Summary:

The Debut is the first feature film ever made in America about the Filipino-American community.  While it may not win any awards for originality, the film has heart and is quite a crowd-pleaser.