We need to talk about Jake Herrera. First, he’s a journalist, though he tethers himself to the métier of a “citizen journalist”, a pursuit which unshackles him from the grips of his family’s notorious political legacy. Second, he derides his father—a Marcos crony who by some force of nature gets elected senator—with a passion not underspoken as all sons have in all of fine literature, for his mother (Dina Bonnevie) had left them, thanks to his father’s corrupt ways. Third and finally, nestled among the tall pines of Baguio, Jake lives to uncover the sordid truths of his nation’s ills and afflictions, many of which he publishes, with screaming redness around his eyes, on his blog. For much of his daily life: all woke and no play makes Jake a full boy.
Jake is the astute observer cum heavy-hearted narrator in Mike De Leon’s “Citizen Jake,” a film that, if nothing else, serves as a tangy reminder of the veteran filmmaker’s boundless artistic vigor. Unlike Orson Welles’ enigmatic Kane, Jake is a mere speck set against a much bigger enigma that is our country: where privilege is the primary commodity; and ex-starlets emerge from the ashes a kingpin-ruling monarch; and those in power live giddy in crime and violence, and whose sin weighs so heavy that the the bottom feeders inevitably get squished. The only logical reaction to this discovery is to tip beyond one’s sanity, which, in many of its parts, the film does.
Jake is played by Atom Araullo, interestingly a real-life journalist. This sheds another layer of metatextuality to the film, which in its shifting to and fro mockumentary-like conceits and metafictional glimpses behind the scenes is welcome and crucial. Turn your attention to the very first scene, in which we’re greeted by two Jake Herreras in one frame—or is it two Atom Araullos? Or can it be that the actor and the character, in that sequence, literally share the screen? That bit is left unclear, as some other moments are in the film, but it’s obvious that both handsomely bewhiskered men aren’t here to sway your thinking. They’ve made up their mind and here to talk truths of which we’re all too blind to see.
The screenplay, written by De Leon, Araullo, and Noel Pascual, swivels from domestic drama to mystery crime as Jake reluctantly trails the murder of a young woman who’s tangled up with a mess between a judge (Nonie Buencamino), a headmistress (Cherie Gil), and an unscrupulously built region-wide bordello business. Elsewhere, his father, Jacobo Herrera Jr. (Teroy Guzman), insists that he tend the “family business” instead, a prospect at which Jake snidely snickers, at the expense of his irascible, Coppola-quoting older brother, Roxie (Gabby Eigenmann). “Eh, ikaw,” he exclaims at one point. “Governor lang. Mas bobo ‘yun!” (“What about you—just a governor. That’s stupid.”).
The true joke, of course, is that expel as much contempt as he wants, Jake is coming from a privileged place. Opportunities land on his lap because he’s a Herrera, the very name from which he himself wants so desperately to unmoor. When a young woman is brutally murdered, he looks down at the crime as mere distraction from his cause, which, of course, it isn’t. He seems close enough to his childhood friend, Jonie (Luis Alandy), whose doggedly demeanor around him makes the separation in their dynamic as master and servant crisp. The joke is that his on-again-off-again girlfriend, Mandy (Max Collins), is right. He’s looking at things from the high horse on which he’s cozily cushioned, oblivious to the fact that he’s all but a mote in a viciously recursive cycle predicated on privilege, moral corruption, and a slanted sense of social justice. All woke and no play makes Jake a dull boy.
This, I guess, lends the film’s final moments the necessary cogs to make its wheels go round. The road to get there, however, is paved with sharp turns into the metafictional, which limits just as much as it enables De Leon’s film. There are, in between moments outright fourth-wall breaks, savage name-dropping (turn your ear for the bit which condemns those who sell books of fiction as history), and behind-the-scenes footage of the film itself. Many don’t feel quite right in their placement, some feel downright unnecessary.
If truth is stranger than fiction, then fiction based on truth is bound to be strangest? I don’t know. At this point, I’m still left quite abuzz. Still, the merits of this film are too great that they offset its indulgences. It’s the hippest dab from one of our hippest filmmakers. And though the film doesn’t quite hit all its marks, we need to talk about “Citizen Jake”.
2018 / Drama, Mystery / PH
Direction: Mike De Leon
Screenplay: Mike De Leon, Atom Araullo, Noel Pascual
Cast: Atom Araullo, Teroy Guzman, Gabby Eigenmann, Cherie Gil, Nonie Buencamino, Max Collins, Elora Españo, Anna Luna
A drama about the personal saga of a Filipino and his struggles with the contradictions within his own social class and the demands of a dysfunctional political family in a Third World nation.