A star, special kids, and music

Filipino romantic balladeer Christian Bautista stars in Simfoni Luar Biasa (A Special Symphony), a heartwarming movie about special children with an (almost) all-Indonesian cast.

The movie begins with a performance by struggling Filipino musician Jayden Ruiz, played by Bautista. This barroom scene gives viewers a quick glimpse of how his attempts to land a recording deal repeatedly fail. This joke on Bautista’s successful career as a recording artist creates the main conflict that forces the character to fly to Jakarta, Indonesia with nary a purpose but to live with his estranged mom.

As Jayden starts anew in the neighboring country, he finds his true calling by working as a music teacher at SLB Cahaya Mulya, a public school for children with special needs. The film further tackles how he waxes and wanes between compassion, hilarity, profundity, and anxiety in the midst of the Bahasa-speaking people he meets throughout his stint. This movie, directed by Awi Suryada and produced by Indonesian outfit Nation Pictures, strategically takes on the time-tested formula of children making music.

Image from Youtube.com

I was prepared to be a little be biased before watching this film -- full disclosure: my brother is an 18-year-old boy diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Any endeavor that aims to raise awareness and promote acceptance among special children automatically sounds good to me. Also, I was quite interested in seeing how students with learning disabilities are treated in Indonesia, even if it’s just in film.

The movie, inspired by the story of a chorus of special children in Beijing, China, is also endorsed by the Autism Society of the Philippines.

Armed with nothing but my interest for special children and my ignorance of Indonesian cinema, I went inside an empty theater without really expecting much, only to come out with new perspectives and increased observations.

The original title is a play on “Sekolah Luar Biasa,” which is what they call public special education schools in Indonesia. I got a bit envious after learning they have schools solely dedicated to improving the lives of such children. In the Philippines, parents have to pay top dollar to send their special kids to good private schools, because the children aren’t top priority for the public education system, whereas (as shown in the film) Indonesians send their kids to these separate special public schools where they can learn practical skills like weaving, woodworking, cooking, swimming and, yes, music -- which now leads me to Bautista’s performance in the film.

I reckon I was going to see just another singer trying to cross over to acting -- and an ambitious move at that (he wanted to go international on his first attempt!) -- but Bautista was quite convincing as a lost boy trying to put his life together. In the earlier parts of the film, he fell short of making me believe that he was a stubborn failed musician, but as the story progressed, he got his groove on by channeling a sensitive guy who’s trying to make a difference in people’s lives, which he appears to be good at portraying. It was not overly done and it didn’t make me queasy, but it wasn’t stellar either.

It would have worked better if the screenwriters didn’t create so many side stories, because at times these would take the audience away from the central issue of the movie. The film could stand alone even without the romance and family drama. It would have been also nicer if better actors were hired to play the special children, because from what I know, special children do not make the kind of movements I saw in the movie all the time, and their behavior varies a lot depending on the developmental case.

Stand-out scenes -- aside from the heart-wrenching final few minutes -- include Jayden’s trip with the kids to the theme park, the montage of the children’s activities at school, and this one particular scene where a special child insists on going to school even if it’s a Sunday (that one definitely hit home).

Indonesian mainstream cinema rates poorly compared to its other Southeast Asian counterparts according to studies and reports, but I was impressed by how they were able to answer, through the script, some simple questions that would not be explored and would be treated as plot holes, like how Jayden got his plane ticket ready at hand or how the children were automatically qualified to join the choir competition. It was also good to observe how they were able to subtly inject social commentary through conversations between the characters.

If there is something to appreciate about A Special Symphony other than the central theme and the poignant ending, it would be the musical arrangements, and, no, I’m not just talking about the movie theme “I am Already King.” All the other songs meld beautifully into the film, especially the one used in the theme park sequence.

This article also appeared in the August 02, 2011 edition of BusinessWorld.

No comments:

Post a Comment