Anita's Last Cha-cha

A 12-year-old tomboy gets a hopeless crush on a stunner who returns to her village in Anita’s Last Cha-cha (Ang huling cha-cha ni Anita), a lightly handled tale of sexual confusion and pubescent rebellion that’s made palatable by a terrific performance from gawky young newcomer Teri Malvar and the refreshing way in which none of the characters shows the slightest surprise over the young girl’s passion. What could so easily have crossed the borderlines of taste, or become bogged down in gender lecturing or a rote tragedy of one-sided lesbian love, emerges as a very likeable, if somewhat loosely constructed, debut by first-time writer-director Sigrid Andrea P. Bernardo.

Framed as a reminiscence by the adult Anita, who’s an officer in the Filipino army (the movie’s only cliché), the film is actually more of a village ensemble than just devoted to Anita. Presumably realising that she could only take the lesbian-crush story so far, Bernardo situates it within a broad portrait of rural smalltown society: Anita’s naggy mother and her gossiping female friends, Anita’s adult cousin Oscar who has a history with the beauteous returnee, and Anita’s two childhood pals (the Miss Piggy-like Carmen and equally dumpy Goying), plus local traditions like the Obando fertility feast. As such it often has the feel of a rural coming-of-age movie – with lots of scenes of the kids playing in the countryside – tethered to a story of a young girl’s infatuation in which her object of desire just happens to be an older member of the same sex.

Bernardo keeps the tone light, with multiple fantasy sequences in which Anita imagines the gorgeous Pilar – played commendably straight by 37-year-old actress-model Angel Aquino (Donsol, plus recent horrors Biktima and Amorosa) – coming on to her in various ways that play with popular Filipino genres. The mixed chemistry between the older woman and young girl is just right, played for sweetness and smiles rather than actual sexuality, and Malvar is especially good at Anita’s squirming embarrassment and shyness. Equally refreshing is the way in which Anita’s two young pals never even blink over her pre-adolescent “passion”, with Len-Len Frial especially good as the totally self-absorbed Carmen.

Shot on a shoestring, but showing no signs of it in Alma R. Dela Peña’s sunny, well-composed photography and Popo Diaz’s production design (especially for Pilar’s home), Anita loses some of its verve in the second half and has a weak semi-fantasy ending but generally goes the distance thanks to its busy array of characters, including the village chorus of Anita’s mother (Lui Manansala, good) and her gossiping female friends. At the very least, Anita makes one curious where Bernardo will land next.
Derek Elley
Film Director: Sigrd A. P. BERNARDO
Year: 2013
Running time: 110'
Country: The Philippines