‘The Fabulous Filipino Brothers’ Review: A Culturally Specific Comedy With Universal Appeal

The title for “The Fabulous Filipino Brothers” makes it sound like a movie about a now-obscure troupe of singing-dancing siblings who once opened for Frank Sinatra in Las Vegas, and were audience favorites back in the day on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” As it turns out, however, this engagingly freeform comedy has an entirely different sort of showbiz pedigree, being the joint effort of four real-life Filipino-American brothers — Dante, Derek, Dionysio and Darion Basco — with scads of film and TV acting, writing and producing credits on their respective IMDb pages. And while one can only wonder just how autobiographical this enterprise may be for any of them, there can be no doubt that their family ties are a major reason why the interactions of the characters they portray resound with a solid ring of truth that greatly enhances all the funny business.

Working from a loosely knit episodic script he wrote with brother Darion, director Dante Basco smoothly switches back and forth between the wedding celebration of an extended Filipino-American family in Pittsburg, Calif., and vignettes that focus individually on four siblings during the buildup to the big event. In a manner highly reminiscent of similarly constructed European comedies from the 1960s and ’70s, tonal shifts between segments are frequent, as the humor ranges from sweetly romantic to joltingly dark. Holding it all together is an omniscient narrator whose identity is kept a secret until a cheeky twist late in the third act.

Dayo Abasta (Derek Basco), the eldest, volunteers to pay for the expensive wedding feast — even though, as his Chinese-American wife (Cheryl Tsai) points out, he can scarcely afford such a magnanimous gesture. But for Dayo, it’s a matter of pride and culture — unlike the Chinese, he insists only half-jokingly, Filipinos are tradition-bound “jungle Asians.” So he returns to his past as a street hustler, a journey that entails close encounters with an aggressive Yakuza gambler, an aunt in need of dialysis treatment, and a rooster that requires chemical enhancement to compete in a cockfighting match.

If this first episode recalls broadly played ‘90s urban comedies like “Friday” and “I Got the Hook Up” — and, rest assured, it does — the second, filmed on location on the Philippines, more closely resembles a Richard Linklater-style dialogue-driven two-hander. Duke Abasta (Dante Basco), the most successful of the brothers, makes his first trip to Manila for a sales meeting, and winds up mixing business with pleasure when he’s reunited with Anna (Solenn Heussaff, a high-profile star in the Philippines), an old flame who’s not entirely averse to being rekindled. Although each of them is happily married to other people, one thing leads to another. But before that can lead to something else, the movie springs a surprise that some viewers may find upsetting, and others will find uproarious.

The third segment is little more than an extended blackout sketch, probably designed to ease viewers from the shocking to the sentimental. Danny Boy Abasta (Darion Basco), an incorrigibly immature party animal, locks eyes with a receptive hottie during preparations for the wedding feast, cuing the most lascivious use of food as foreplay since Tony Richardson’s “Tom Jones.” The payoff, however, is a rushed fumble.

Still, Danny Boy sticks around to play a key supporting role in the final vignette, a satisfyingly sweet chapter showcasing David (Dionysio Basco), a moody introvert who’s been stuck in a deep blue funk since breaking up with his girlfriend two years earlier. To cheer up his brother — and, just as important, to maybe halt his obsession with composing thunderously loud electronica music — Danny Boy posts David’s profile on a dating app, thereby attracting the interest of a potential Miss Right. Trouble is, she brings with her a unique sort of baggage.

Various other Basco family members of varying ages fill a multitude of supporting roles in “The Fabulous Filipino Brothers,” a movie that abounds in affectionately specific and vividly rendered cultural details (note how the older folks complain that their Americanized offspring haven’t bothered to learn how to speak Tagalog) even as it maintains a universal appeal.

And to address the elephant in the room: It’s also a movie that has had its world premiere at SXSW at a time when anti-Asian prejudices have been inflamed nationwide by unscrupulous politicians and radical hate mongers, leading to violent assaults and, just this week in Atlanta, multiple homicides. Seeing “The Fabulous Filipino Brothers” right now can give you a wrenching sense of whiplash, as the boisterous shenanigans here might seem tragically unconnected to real-world events. But look closer: The love and respect and joy that bind the Abasta family are real, too. It would be unfair to expect an amusing but slight comedy like this one to serve as a substantial political statement. On the other hand, there’s a lot to be said for any movie that reminds us, in a heartfelt but unassuming way, that we are many, but we are one.

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