Films that are set in the ‘90s always bring me joy. Those were simple, joyous days and the ones who lived through it would vouch for it. That was when we played 8-bit video games. Children mastered the game of life through trial-and-error whereas technology seldom threatened to overpower them developing interests. Director Raya Martin’s Death of Nintendo, set in Manila, is universal in various ways despite its major plot driver being specific to the region.

Following the activities of three 13-year-olds, Paolo, Kachi, and Gilligan, the film comes primarily in the coming-of-age bracket. Martin’s film touches upon a variety of issues – teenage friendships, the pubertal rise of hormones, school romances, single parenting, religion, bullying, class differences, and so on. Among the most intriguing is the boys’ idea of how they transition to manhood. Their immediate idol in this respect in Kachi’s brash elder brother. He is handsome, hung, and beds girls with ease. Most importantly, the young man has gotten his Tulì done (the Filipino rite of circumcision), unlike the trio.

Paolo, whom the film projects as the main protagonist, faces rebuffs from various quarters. If his mother is overly possessive, the girl he secretly lusts after (Elijah Alejo as Shiara) is least interested in him. To make the matters worse, he is bullied by an arrogant US-returned classmate. Having brought up by a dominating mom and a loving nanny, the young lad never really had a man to look up to. What he looks forward to is the Tuli ritual performed on him by a traditional practitioner and not by a medical doctor whom his mother recommends.

However, between Paolo and his friends would take an eventful Tuli trip, Raya Martin’s film sets up its causes well. Becoming a refreshing angle in the story is Mimaw (Kim Oquendo, wonderful) who is the only girl close to the trio. She is Gilligan’s sister and a tomboy by choice. Mimaw is secretly in love with Paolo. Between the two and Shiara, a quiet Archie-Betty-Veronica angle develops.

Writer Valerie Castillo Martinez details out Paolo and Mimaw’s psyches rather astutely. Even when Death of Nintendo is mostly the boys’ film, aside from being a brief chronicle of the era, it also quietly welcomes us to Mimaw’s mind. Be it with the momentary friendship she forges with Shiara or the manner she attempts to be a girly girl, Mimaw frequently threatens to steal the thunder off Paulo and his friends.

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Death of Nintendo also attempts to dissect male friendships and the local culture. However, the impact is a little less in this area because there is a limit to subtexts and elements in a film that runs merely for 100 minutes. As a result, before we completely make sense out of a certain impulse in Paolo’s mind, the film switches to a different tangent. Kachi and Gilligan, even though captivating characters, remain largely catalytic.

On the other hand, Castillo Martinez beautifully designs the part of Paolo’s mom. She is enormously demanding, religious, and everything that a controlling mother is meant to be. We sense the exasperation on Paolo’s face when he filters every plan of his with a possible reaction from his mother. Moreover, the part becomes even more worthwhile as the actor enacts it in a freewheeling fashion. As Paolo, Noel Comia Jr. masterfully underplays his part. There is a lot to observe in his silences and gazes. His is not a performance meant for the gallery but one to quietly connect with.

Adding further to the film’s appeal is the backdrop of Mount Pinatubo’s volcanic eruption. It aligns the story with a finite angle of history thereby underscoring it with a slight accent of fear. While I enjoyed each element in Death of Nintendo, including the dubious night of Good Friday, the male bonding side appeared the most appealing and it deserved finer detailing. It needed more moments where the three guys lazily lounged, played Nintendo, and snacked away to glory. Raya Martin’s film felt like a buffet where the starters and desserts were scrumptious but the main course felt a tad bit unfulfilling.

Rating: ★★★

Death of Nintendo was screened at the 36th annual Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.

 

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