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Reel Asian Film Festival Review: Prison Dancer

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This year’s Reel Asian International Film Festival has been a wonderful experience so far — full of surprises and great films. One of the biggest delights was the presentation of the quirky Philippine/Canadian musical Prison Dancer, which was screened on Friday, November 9. Not only did the attendees get the chance to chat with the director Romeo Candido and producer Ana Serrano, they also witnessed the entire cast perform each and every song from the movie.

As such, Prison Dancer at Reel Asian was not just a movie-going experience, but an Experience with a capital “E.” It was a movie/play/interactive show/game — or in other words, it was something that does not have a category of its own. The fact that the Board of Directors at Reel Asian had the tenacity to even consider attempting such a feat proves that the festival is where filmmakers and artists should feel welcome.

So, what did the actual show entail? Well, first and foremost, it was a movie — a mocumentary about a group of male prisoners in Philippines who are forced to rehabilitate through dancing (which is a real phenomenon by the way), while being filmed by security cameras and then watched by millions of people on Youtube. This premise is simple, but it works.

In a nutshell, Prison Dancer is just a series of musical numbers and fake interviews, framed by a very, very loose narrative. The fake interviews between each musical number are conducted by the “viral star meme hunter” Matt Wells (played by, well, Matt Wells) and involve each prisoner sharing the stories of their past and current struggles (in a very humorous way). If it all seems very shallow to you, that’s because it is. But to the film’s credit, the shallowness does not hamper its entertainment value at all. In fact, it sort of enhances it.

What jumps at you right from the get-go is the effeminate appearance of all the male prisoners — with some of them being outright gay, like the film’s central character Lola (Jeigh Madjus). The effeminate nature of the prisoner characters becomes the source of many of the film’s jokes — which may remind some of you of the TV musical called Glee. That’s where the film’s shallowness works in its favour. In other words, if you are a fan of Glee, you will feel right at home with this film.

Now let’s talk about the on-stage performance that accompanied the screening of Prison Dancer. Yes, the film’s cast actually performed each musical number during the screening. So, while watching the movie, the audience could either look at the screen or at the actors in their costumes as they performed the songs live. There was a quasi-interactive bit to the show as well — when one of the characters “forced” the audience to learn one of his dance moves.

Overall, the show was a blast — it was humorous, goofy, and ultimately fulfilling. Sure, it did not make me think about larger issues in life, but that wasn’t its intention in the first place. All I can tell you for sure is that it made me leave the theater with a smile on my face.

If you feel that Prison Dancer is something that you would like to see, then don’t fret because the whole thing has debuted as a webseries (and only later turned into a movie) on Youtube. So, if you ever feel like dancing — or watching a bunch of Filipino men dance — then follow this link and give Prison Dancer a chance.

Before wrapping this up, I would also like to point out that Reel Asian Film Festival will go on until November 17, so if you are interested in seeing more films like this one, then you can buy tickets on the festival’s official website by following this link.

Rating: B+

By: Taras Trofimov