The Fatal Simplicity of Ang Huling El Bimbo.

“All art is political,” and such saying applies very much to most movies and shows these days. One might say that most recent projects are at its most politically or socially conscious, but for the longest of times, the arts have never shied away from relevant and timely themes. 

A few days ago, the 2018 play Ang Huling El Bimbo was free to watch for a total of two days. In those two days that it was live, people have taken to social media to share their thoughts on the stage play. Cutting a long story short, audience response was divided, to say the least.

While many have taken it to social media to defend the production for its supposed attempts at making a political statement, a whole lot more have decried it for something that could be best described as its “fatal simplicity.”

What we mean by this we’ll get into later. For now, just sit back and relax as we discuss the problems with Ang Huling El Bimbo.

Ang Huling El Bimbo is a 2018 stage play inspired by the music of the highly popular Filipino rock band “Eraserheads,” often dubbed as the “Beatles of the Philippines.” Told through some of the band’s most memorable hits, AHEB starred Boo Gabunada and OJ Mariano, Reb Atadero and Gian Magdangal, and Topper Fabregas and Jon Santos as Emman, Hector, and Anthony, respectively. They are three college friends, who reunite after one of their closest friends, Joy, played by Tanya Manalang / Gab Pangilinan, and by assistant director Menchu Lauchengo-Yulo as an adult, dies.

Other members of the cast include Sheila Francisco as Tiya Dely, Joy’s guardian, and Jamie Wilson as Arturo Banlaoi, the trio’s former ROTC instructor turned crooked politician. Dexter M. Santos served as director and choreographer, while Dingdong Novenario wrote the script.

At its surface, AHEB is pretty much a decent play. Nostalgic and creative renditions of Eraserheads’ discography are complimented by finely tuned performances and state-of-the-art production value. Unfortunately, in perhaps another example of “style over substance,” the play’s plot line presented timely themes, but as we have said, it resorted to nothing more than fatal simplicity: a lethal blend of cliches and a severe lack of depth.

This can be seen in three main points.

Emman, Hector, and Anthony: Three Characters, No Clear Arcs.

Story progressions normally (and logically) should progress like this: introduce the main characters and the status quo, establish main conflict, then have the characters slowly work their way to try to overcome the odds. Then it could either end satisfyingly or tragically, but regardless of the outcome, the ending should always make sense.

In the first act, we spend more than the first fifteen minutes and probably two to three musical numbers introducing the audience to Emman, Hector, and Anthony, and their entrance to the wicked world of college.

In these opening moments, we also get some hints of what would be their character arcs. Emman would learn how to be more politically conscious and independent from his on and off again girlfriend. Anthony embarks on a quest to embrace his sexual identity. Hector would … go through something.

From the looks of things, the play established that it would more or less be their story, with Joy tagging along for the adventure. By the time we get to the second act, however, we then realize that their arcs ultimately lead to nowhere. Though there would be references again here and there (e.g. Emman still wanting to protest, Anthony being forced into a heterosexual relationship, etc.), none of their individual arcs would be given any proper resolutions.

Again, if the play was very much interested in the three’s individual arcs, why not build it up more instead of having them disappear almost entirely in the second act, and have a resolution that could only be summed-up as a simple parting shot to their friend.

In stark contrast, there is Joy.

The Tragedy of Joy.

Her death is what led the trio to reunite, she has a lot of stage time with her three friends, her climactic scene is the catalyst for the play’s present day events to take place, and takes center stage in the second act. However, out of the four main characters, she is the only one with the clearest story arc, in that she is trying to find hope in others, when she could’ve found it within herself instead.

This is especially apparent when her arc compared to Hector’s, Emman’s, and Anthony’s, in that it was only her arc that was given any satisfying and logical resolution. 

By all accounts, Joy should’ve been the main character from the beginning. Alas, the first arc’s overemphasis on the trio effectively destroyed any chance of her having a very compelling one.

This is made more problematic we get to that specific scene: Joy’s rape at the hands of random hoodlums.

To elaborate, as Joy becomes closer to the three guys, they decide to go on a road trip as a means to celebrate their graduation and eventual crossover into adulthood. However, Joy is then gang raped as the titular song eerily plays in the background. Joy survives, but her friends, due to what might be a dated mindset regarding rape, decided to not take her to a hospital.

They just collectively assumed that Joy would be alright.

In the second act, we see the fallout of the actions of her so-called “friends.” With the three moving away to live their lives, Joy is stuck to care for her dear Tiya Dely, while also tending to her daughter Ligaya, who was born from the rape. Hard times followed when Arturo Banlaoi decided to buy Tiya Dely’s eatery, which became a bar and drug den that Banlaoi used to fund his political campaign.

The cracks begin to surface when Joy’s agency as a character begins fading away. She is now a victim of circumstance, which isn’t bad on paper, but it is when the perspective is wrong.

Seen it before

The very small triumphs and very large tragedies in Joy’s life would eventually force her to sell drugs on Banlaoi’s behalf, to support her family. She desperately tries in vain to reach-out to her clearly uncaring friends, clinging onto the “joy” of the past, until she meets her end.

But, the play goes on even if the real story has already ended. We finally returned to the present time, where the three men finally came together to make peace with the past, and by her death, they have been saved, inspiring them to be better.

As they finally sang the titular song once more, in a more somber tone, one might probably not have realized that the play had officially shown its fatal simplicity by way of making Joy yet another “woman in a refrigerator.”

Coined by comic book writer Gail Simone, this term refers to the usually needless death of any character for the sake of giving them character development through angst. Though male characters also fall under this trope, female characters are most usually and infamously linked to this phenomenon.

The trope received its name from a very controversial issue of DC’s Green Lantern, wherein the bearer of the mantle at that time, Kyle Reyner, returned home to find his girlfriend, Alexandra DeWitt, brutally murdered and literally “stuffed in a refrigerator” by one of his enemies.

This trope also applies to non-comic book works, as this play proves it, and it still remains to be a trend to this day. Love interests being killed left and right, and supporting characters having to go through extremely traumatizing lengths.

As we have seen, Joy died for the male characters to grow. A manifestation of which was already hinted at when Joy had an entire musical number with the boys, motivating them to be better characters.

Twitter user @ex_str8 made it clear that Joy has absolutely no agency, especially in the second act, wherein her entire existence is dictated by Banlaoi. This is again one of the moments in Joy’s story arc that makes sense on paper, but is otherwise poorly executed if we’re seeing this through the eyes of men.

What could have been an insightful look at the harsh realities women faced became a cautionary tale that only served as a means for male characters to be better. 

As the play resorted to an already done-to-death approach to exploring rather relevant themes, fatal simplicity reared its ugly head. 

Then, when you combine this problematic perspective to an outright generalist view on society, wherein the play is, intentionally or not, giving the image of an extremely cruel world that only boils down to simple black and white, perhaps one way to describe AHEB is what TV Tropes would call as a “cliché storm.” 

For the most part, there is nothing wrong with clichés, other than that it makes a story a little bit more predictable than it should be. But when there is a blanket of excess familiarity that creates a generalist view on a reality, then you lose complexity and depth. Instead of having people to think, analyze, and discuss the themes, and reach their own conclusions, AHEB forces a simplistic conclusion that boils down to “the world is just plain awful,” not giving the audience the chance to think on their own.

Defrosting the woman in the refrigerator

A friend of mine told me that there was supposed to be five main characters involved in the group, instead of the four that we have already become acquainted with. For me, I believe that that mysterious fifth character could bring further depth to the plot.

I believe that the character of Andre could do just that.

For it to work, we need to work on three major changes.

  1. Make Joy the sole protagonist of the play, with a heavier emphasis on present time.

It goes without saying at this point that Joy has to take center stage more often than the other three. As previously mentioned, it was only her who had a clear character arc, and it was only through her perspective could we be able to truly understand the startling reality of rape.

While the three male friends would still be around, there would be a noticeable decrease in their stage time. The flashback sequences for the first act would be shorter, and would be sprinkled all throughout the play that would create a non-linear narrative. The introductory song numbers would also be repurposed for Joy’s arc (e.g. “Pare Ko,” originally featured in the ROTC sequence). This way, it would be much easier to see Joy’s progression from naive optimist to struggling mother, from the very beginning, to the very tragic end.

For this change, I would have the play moved to Joy’s days as a single mother/unwilling drug peddler. The one problem that I had with the second act is that while it did show Joy’s downs and further downs, the limited screen time and the approaching climactic reveal of her death rushed the story progression to the point that we were not given exactly enough time to truly feel what she is going through. There are numbers that conveyed that, but a montage, especially in a play like this simply wouldn’t cut it.

With this alteration, it would make for a clearer story progression, and prevent the play from suddenly dropping Joy’s three acquaintances almost entirely out of the second act. This would also give them small yet very meaningful roles.

Since the play is going for the theme of nostalgia, and the unexpected dangers behind it, Joy would be recalling the flashback scenes in a very whimsical way, but it slowly becomes increasingly dire. This would indicate a gentle progression in tone for the play. One that would also help indicate Joy’s development as a character.

  1. Bring Andre back for a bigger role, and discuss the consequences of the rape.
In the play, Andre was Joy’s ex-boyfriend, and Emman, Hector, and Anthony’s ROTC co-commander, who disappeared halfway through the first act after growing jealous of Joy’s deepening bond with the boys, especially with Hector.

This change would also rectify the simplistic view behind the antagonistic forces haunting Joy’s world. Instead of simply disappearing from the face of the Earth, Andre would serve as the co-star who takes the place of three men. Here, Andre would meet an older Joy (though I’d prefer Gab Pangilinan to take over the entire time), and would realize that him being petty over her blossoming friendship was wrong of him, and he decides to bond with her throughout.

Andre’s inclusion would also help lessen the controversy surrounding the rape scene, especially with regards to what many would say to be Joy’s most problematic trait in the second act. Here, Joy calls the three boys, now living successful but ultimately unhappy lives, for support, but every single time, they would scold her for meddling with them. A lot of viewers took into question the fact that Joy is spending her time reaching-out to people who left her to suffer instead of trying to build herself-up.

However, I tend to side with this other interpretation that states that Joy is simply clinging onto hope the best that she could. That is indeed a remarkable idea, but it is pretty troubling that almost nobody is willing to call her out. This again paints a very simple image that generalizes as the world outside of Joy being totally awful human beings.

With Andre, we could have a character who still resorts to the dated idea of “the damsel-in-distress.” Like a lot of the characters here, they are still high on nostalgia, almost refusing to adapt to the changes in society, but Andre is well-intentioned. Though dated in ideology, Andre would often try in vain to convince Joy of moving-on from her friends, and would be the guy to question why, as many noted, would Joy ever sing the titular song to Ligaya, even if that was the song that played during her own rape.

  1. Keep the ending as it was, but Andre would be there to call out Emman, Anthony, and Hector for their shortcomings.
Unlike a certain minority in the audience, I am one with the people who thought that it would have been for the best if the play would still stick to its downer ending. Had they given this a happier, inconsequential ending, with the three guys finding redemption almost immediately despite completely damagine Joy’s life would be baffling and insulting to the audience.

It would also be a mistake if the play turned into yet another female empowerment tale that only sticks to preaching to the choir. Empowerment is essential, surely, but any form of media should not assume that every audience member needs a pep talk to be empowered.

However, one noticeable change in this play would be that Andre would remain until the end.

After fruitlessly convincing Joy to instead find hope in brighter, arguably better places, Andre becomes tired of it all, and decides to leave. Joy would be shaken, and slowly she would eventually realize that perhaps she really is better off without them, a development that we get a hint of in the play already. 

But as life would show, we are never entirely the masters of our own destiny, and Joy is unceremoniously killed after being hit by a car.

As Joy is being prepared for burial, Andre would encounter Emman, Anthony, and Hector, and there, he would promptly call them out for their refusal to be genuine friends. I feel that Facebook user Ceaz Jarder Sarillo’s and YouTube commenter Jann Mendoza’s similar symbolic interpretations of the three characters would be more apparent through Andre’s tirade, but it has to be subtle enough for people to think about it.

Instead of dying for the sake of men growing, she becomes a victim of both her own actions and of unfortunate circumstance. This gives Joy a level of agency beyond her three “friends.” With Andre hammering in the trio’s shortcomings, the audience would realize that while Emman, Anthony, and Hector learned, no amount of care could reverse the damage.

With these changes, Joy would no longer be a woman in a refrigerator. 

Joy is now a character of her own.


Ang Huling El Bimbo is an interesting play. The performances and its production value are well-worth the praise, and it’s more modern renditions of Eraserheads’ acclaimed hits are memorable enough to stick with modern audiences. But it’s otherwise use of overused tropes, and questionable story elements (such as the use of the titular song during a rape scene, and the play resorting to treat it as something sentimental) hold it back from being something truly special.

On a personal note, I do see people’s defense that AHEB is an attempt to show “the harsh reality.” A reality that Kiara Dario, a member of the play’s ensemble and a rape survivor herself, sees something that the world at large needs to know. Though I understand where she is coming from, especially in her claim that we don’t have to see another preachy empowerment work, in terms of storytelling, viewing trauma to someone else’s lens is telling only half the story.

One of my Development Communication professors explained it best (in Filipino, no less) on the importance of having an in-depth discussion on serious subject matter. “Subalit gaya ng sinabi ko kanina, kailangang sipatin ang diskurso ng palabas upang mapunan natin ang kaniyang pagkukulang.” In other words, he is saying that the perspective matters so that we can truly understand what Joy is going through.

I am in no way dismissing AHEB as an art form. It could be said that there really is effort put into the storytelling front, and there really is no doubt that the play is worthy of praise from starting a conversation, as social media could attest to.

However, if AHEB and all others works would want to dive deep into mature themes, they have to choose the right perspective. If plot elements were introduced, then give proper and logical resolutions. If the art aims to disturb, then help people understand why it should disturb them, and as Twitter user @koronelmagnet puts it, let people know what they might be expecting.

If art wants to be fairly complex, then they must avoid resorting to fatal simplicity.

This is Dateline Movies, and that was the hot take.


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