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[whitespace] Naked Self: Harry (Rodel Velayo) makes a living taking it all off at a gay bar in Manila.

Brought to Bare

Stripteaser 'Burlesk King' gives an eyeful, but it's mostly all for show

By Richard von Busack

BURLESK KING spares the viewer nothing, in its unflinching look at conditions onstage at the fictional Papa's Bar. Here, our hero is paid to dance, naked as a needle, in front of homosexuals and the occasional degraded woman. Despite this inconceivable sordidness, the film Burlesk King is redeemed with a message of family togetherness that balances this necessary study of the unsavory "macho dancer" trade. Can't help but feel a little like a sex tourist, watching this Philippine import. Really, the moral of the story seems to be, "Get an eyeful of these hot guys!" It's not that I'm adverse, see, it's just that mixing up the titillation with the family story is a little deceptive. Note the way our hero goes from degradation to redemption in, like, 60 seconds, after this wayward son is reunited with his even more wayward mom. We don't get many Philippine movies around these parts, anyway, so this may be raison d'etre enough.

Harry, our hero, is a poor boy of the provinces who comes to Manila. He's hired as gay-for-pay naked dancer and hustler. Harry is supposed to be half-American (Burlesk King slightly indicts the Americans who acted like whoremasters back when the islands had our military bases there). As played by Rodel Velayo, Harry looks like an Asian Elvis--and, unfortunately, Velayo is just about as involved as Elvis was in some of his lesser movies. Tormented by poorly filmed memories of his sexually abused childhood, Harry finds solace with a fellow prostitute. She's the plump Brenda (Nini Jacinto), who calls herself "The Mother Theresa of the Red Light District." Really, what she wants is to be a mom. Harry, now with a steady girl, competes for the prize of Burlesk King of 1998 at Papa's Bar. Meanwhile he turns tricks, sometimes with Brenda by his side.

Director Mel Chionglo is at his best in a montage in which Harry describes the methods he uses to handle his customers. Afterwards, Burlesk King is back to the strip acts, a minor quarrel and an even more minor drug problem--and all is resolved with unlikely handiness.

As Betty, Harry's mother, Elizabeth Oropesa (last seen in In the Navel of the Sea) gives a performance that's like a classic piece of Hollywood studio acting--unfortunately, she's in the middle of what, actingwise, is about the level of an episode of Fame.

Burlesk King has pansexual positivity, with a sympathetic lesbian couple and no real gay villains. And the occasional shots of life in Manila here include a novel kind of public transportation, human-powered light-weight train cars on abandoned railway lines. Ultimately, these instances don't really make up for the soft-porn quality of the storytelling and direction.

Burlesk King (Not rated; 109 min.) directed by Mel Chionglo, written by Ricardo Lee, photographed by George Tutanes and starring Rodel Velayo, Nini Jacinto and Elizabeth Oropesa, opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose.

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From the November 16-22, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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