ALAMAT NI CHINA DOLL (Adolfo Borinaga Alix, Jr., 2013)
China Doll is an alias given to a young woman with changing identities, infamous for her criminal history at a tender age. Today, China Doll exists only as a myth, or rather a legend, until one reporter exposes the "truth" about her.
The newest addition to the wide range of Adolf Alix Jr's ever-changing and often surprising cinematic oeuvre, comes in the form of a detective story. Detective, in the sense that the journalist character, Perry Nanali played with unflinching ruthlessness by Cesar Montano, strips China Doll (Angelica Panganiban) of her layered character and publishes a tell- all biography, even at the expense of her safety. Also, the film, from a screenplay by another esteemed filmmaker, Lav Diaz takes on the form of a sleuth journal, as we follow clues and chronology leading to the events that would be defined by that singular act of opportunism, or bravery by Perry.
ALAMAT NI CHINA DOLL does not follow a linear plot. From time to time we get flashbacks, back when China Doll was still Myrna Yu, and an NBI Agent (Philip Salvador) tries to break her during interrogation. Present events are also neatly scattered throughout the film, where the ending may be somewhere in the middle, or even in the beginning, and the ending does not necessarily mean the end of the story.
You will note how Angelica Panganiban has matured through the years, who herein plays a reformed, or rather a reforming criminal. Philip Salvador reminds us that he still got it, and when he threatens Cesar Montano in one scene, reminding him "pumapatay ako ng tao" (I kill people), we shiver in terror.
Supporting actors make sure their presence is felt: Evelyn Vargas, warm and earnest plays a teacher who holds high hopes for China Doll, now known as Helen. Allan Paule is a publisher who gets ensnared in a trap laid out by Perry. Even Cherry Pie Picache in one brief scene without any dialogue, is heartbreaking. But make sure to witness Anita Linda in an inspired and often endearing (and yes, funny) performance as Helen's Chinese-born grandmother.
I've saved Cesar Montano for last. You should see the film if only for Montano's portrayal of Perry Nanali. Montano brings enormous amounts of gravity to his character that all of Perry's striking qualities- egotism, self-righteousness, and lack of moral reservation comes front and center. We have long missed this kind of Cesar Montano, and it took a filmmaker like Adolf Alix to bring back Montano to his glory days of JOSE RIZAL and MURO AMI.
The nonlinear treatment of CHINA DOLL, although works in the long run, long after you've seen the film, may be baffling for some as the story progresses. I got confused more than twice because of the lack of warning every time a shift in timeline will occur, and needless to say, the film ends not with a bang, but with an allegory, also without proper warning, thus creating a feeling of wanting more.
Alix has made better films in his extensive filmography, but his attempt at a genre film is very well-appreciated. ALAMAT NI CHINA DOLL confronts us of the moral dilemma of truth in journalism, because at what justification, really must the need to know outweigh the life of a human being?
Rated R18 for language and violence