By Menchu Aquino Sarmiento

Movie Review
The Panti Sisters
Directed by Rodolfo “Jun” Robles Lana

THE ACCLAIMED writer and director Rodolfo “Jun” Robles Lana once again proves his versatility and attention to craftsmanship as a director. The naughty but nice script by Ivan Payawal, is full of the usual cultural allusions, which have trickled down from the cornucopia of kabaklaan (Filipino Gay Culture), to enrich Filipino popular culture as a whole: e.g., the Panti patriarch’s (John Arcilla) legal wife is Nora (Carmi Martin) and his déclassé mistress is Vilma (Rosanna Roces). Apart from the obvious funny of the family name Panti, the eldest son Gabriel or Gabbi’s (Paolo Ballesteros) drag name is Vukaka and his culinary specialty is kare-kareng kokak (literally frog curry, but the joke is simply in the childish alliteration). Arcilla plays it straight and insists that his effeminate sons address him always as “Don Emilio.” He is a willing foil to everyone else. It is his character who sets the premise from which the entire film’s plot loopily spools out.

Don Emilio is dying of testicular cancer and, like a fairy tale potentate, he demands that his three sons produce heirs within the year if they would be deserving of a share in his kingdom. Thus, these three luscious fruits of his loins whom he had so unceremoniously banished when they dared to out themselves, return to their ancestral home, not as princes but as flaming queens. It’s a familiarly irreverent take on the princes in the well-loved centuries-old Filipino corrido and zarzuela, those traditional forms which were staples of our early cinema, such as Siete Infantes de Lara (Manuel Conde, 1950) and the various versions of Ibong Adarna. The latter has been parodied as Ang Hiwaga ng Ibong Adarna (Pablo Santiago, 1972) which starred comic greats Babalu, Dolphy, and Panchito as the three princes.

There are no bumbling servants here, but the ever-present sidekick-BFFs are played with impeccable timing and charm by Via Antonio as Chiqui, the tomboy next door who’s been in love with Samuel (Christian Bables) since they were in the elementary grades, and Roxanne Barcelo as the free-spirited Joy. Jorass Gamboa as Zernan, Daniel’s (Martin del Rosario) live-in boyfriend, does a hilarious shower dance with a kitchen sink sprayer.

Everyone is having so much fun playing off each other, that one barely notices the more sobering realities in the plot which has as many twists and turns as a slinky. The Panti Sisters also brings up uncomfortable issues, foremost of which is homophobia, but there are also the patriarchy, violence against women, abortion and who owns women’s bodies. However, it never gets strident or preachy about it. Everything remains reassuringly PG-13.

Especially noteworthy are the different styles of each Panti sister: Daniel is the K-Pop cutie with a smile like cotton candy; Samuel is the 1980s proto-punk throwback, whose kink is role-playing Bella Swan of the Twilight franchise; the eldest, Gabriel, dresses up as a pageant queen, but when he’s not in drag, his Hawaiian printed shirts disturbingly channel Buhay Party List Congressman Lito Atienza — who does not exactly have a positive association with the LBGTQ+ community. But as RuPaul, who successfully brought drag into mainstream cable TV, declared: “Own who you are and celebrate it.” The Panti Sisters are definitely owning it.