‘Singing in Graveyards’: Venice Review

Filipino rock legend Pepe Smith plays a washed-up musician angling for a comeback in Malaysian director Bradley Liew’s debut at Venice Critics’ Week.

Imagine Mick Jagger playing a pale, penniless and largely forgotten rock and roller, and you’re probably somewhere near the spirit of Malaysian-born and Manila-based Bradley Liew’s first full-length feature. But Singing in Graveyards promises much more than that: Here, Filipino rock icon Joey “Pepe” Smith doesn’t merely play a broken entertainer, but one whose career was spent impersonating a rock star based on — wait for it — Joey “Pepe” Smith.

Beyond the intrigue and in-jokes — embodied in the cast-against-type appearances of Filipino indie-cinema royalty Lav Diaz and Mercedes Cabral, but more on that later — Singing in Graveyards also provides a visually poised and emotionally searing character study of a man’s engagement with a lost past and a harsher present. A slow, sparse drama oozing deadpan humor, tremendous sadness and sometimes both at once, Liew’s film shuffles along nicely thanks to Smith’s brazen, nuanced and gamely self-deprecating turn as a very haggard version of himself.

The Bottom Line

A moving character study of a man and his music, managers and mortality.

Running to nearly two and a half hours, Singing in Graveyards sags when Liew attempts to overplay the metahumor — for instance, when Smith’s character is shown watching the “real” Smith’s (fictional) sitcom/talk show. At its best, however, Singing evokes Jim Jarmusch in its remarkable observation and rendition of alienation and ennui. Bowing at the Critics’ Week sidebar in Venice, Liew’s debut should easily generate future dates on the festival circuit. 

Smith’s character begins the film as if he’s simply a rock deity past his sell-by date. Pepe earns his living as a kitschy, retro-novelty act in a horrible dive bar, where he also mans his own largely ignored after-show souvenir stall; he drives a hearse as a car, and sustains himself on a diet of root beer and chocolate porridge. Still a manchild, he makes figurines (of himself) while muttering about the achievements of his band, which had supported The Beatles in Manila in 1969 and played an anti-martial law concert in 1980.

While discussing future prospects with his manager (Lav Diaz), Pepe is revealed as having earned his meager living as an impersonator of Joey Smith, a rock star with whom Pepe played in one single national tour in the 1970s. Destitute and desperate for one more shot at attaining his own fame, he laps up the chance to be the opening act of Joey’s comeback concert — the price being that he would have to ghostwrite a gooey rock ballad for his doppelganger.

Pepe’s grandiose delusions — and the reality around him — begin to slowly unravel. He is dismayed by his awkward meetings with his ex-wife (Susan Africa), now a middle-aged modern art gallery owner, and his son (Ely Buendia), who bristles with silent fury as Pepe visits him with small knickknacks for his own child (Jian Guerra). Cast adrift by his estranged family and his own fantasies, Pepe’s world eventually crumbles when bad news about his hoped-for big break comes along.

While having gone through ups and downs after his heyday, the real Pepe Smith has never been as derided and forgotten as his onscreen character. He remains revered as a pioneer of Philippine rock music, and his first foray into acting two years ago — for Pepe Diokno’s Above the Clouds — was a prime example of a rebel rocker’s graceful embrace of old age. Here, Smith has certainly channeled all the fear of falling he might have had all along, turning in a performance rife with angst and contradiction.

Smith is not the only one playing with his own image here. Having starred in six Cannes, Berlin and Venice competition titles, Mercedes Cabral plays a character juggling caring for Pepe and her own struggle to become a proper film actress. Meanwhile, Lav Diaz — the uncompromising auteur of slow-moving, quotidian dramas with epic runtimes — appears as a foul-mouthed fixer who has no qualms in junking poetic visions or artistic integrity for the sake of profit.

But these characters remain supplementary strains to Singing‘s central leitmotif: a man becoming more aware of and confused by his earthbound existence and his own sagging mortal coil. Larry Manda’s measured camerawork — the long takes, the tracking shots — highlight Pepe’s floating life, a dreaminess central to the film’s quiet splendor.

Production company: Epicmedia Productions
Cast: Pepe Smith, Mercedes Cabral, Lav Diaz, Bernardo Bernando
Director: Bradley Liew
Screenwriters/producers: Bradley Liew, Bianca Balbuena
Executive producers: Tang Ming Hee, Bianca Balbuena, John Tan, Arlyn Magpoc, Tracy Magpoc, Tiffany Macpoc, John Alonte
Director of photography: Larry Manda
Production designer: Benjamin Padero, Carlo Tabije
Costume designer: Carlo Tabije
Editor: Bradley Liew
Music: Pepe Smith
International Sales: M-Appeal
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Critics’ Week)

In Tagalog and English

No rating, 143 minutes