‘Progress, not perfection’: Filipino American rapper reflects on ‘Easter Sunday’

Susan (Lydia Gaston, left) and Joe Valencia (Jo Koy) play a Filipina American mother and son in ‘Easter Sunday,’ directed by Jay Chandrasekhar. Photo: Ed Araquel/Universal Pictures

Filipinos can be tough on their own. From being reprimanded for getting an A minus or not pursuing a nursing career, to eating too little or too much, Filipino parents can be hard to appease.

When it comes to mainstream success, the pressure can be amplified. Take Filipino restaurants, for example. Turo-turo chains like Goldilocks have thrived for decades, but when it comes to fine dining, Filipino restaurateurs struggle to succeed as Filipino customers often compare dishes to their mother’s home cooking. Thus, when a recipe or a dish does not meet expectations, they turn a blind eye to the simple attempt.

Jo Koy’s ‘Easter Sunday’ brings Filipino American family life to the big screen

Comedian and ‘Easter Sunday’ star Jo Koy speaks after receiving a key to the town from Daly City. Photo: Stephen Lam/The Chronicle

Filipino American comedian Jo Koy, who rose to fame lamenting his biracial life with a strict mother from the Philippines, is also not immune to it. Preparing for the premiere of his feature debut, “Easter Sunday,” at Century 20 Daly City just a few weeks ago, he said that kind of tough judgment also happens with Filipino representation on television and in the media. movie theater.

It’s been over 20 years since I’ve seen a Filipino American family on the big screen. When the independent film “The Debut” came out in 2001, I was finishing my freshman year as a journalism major at San Francisco State University. Director Gene Cajayon came to my class to promote the film, which premiered at the Kabuki theater in Japantown. ‘The Debut’ had its squeaky moments, but its star was our Pinoy Crown Prince and Pittsburgh native Dante Basco – who played Lost Boys frontman Rufio in Steven Spielberg’s 1991 film ‘Hook’.

Pittsburgh-born Dante Basco (right) starred as Ben, and Joy Bisco played Annabelle in Gene Cajayon’s film about a Filipino American family, “The Debut.” PICTURED: HANDOUT / Celestial Pictures 2001

This time around, now a mom of two and a paid critic (first as a music journalist for Rolling Stone and later as a rapper on the progressive hip-hop label Beatrock Music criticizing the systematic oppression of people in color), when I was invited to watch “Easter Sunday”, I felt both happy for Jo Koy and also worried. Could it live up to the hype? Would it be a flop?

Knowing that the film is set in Daly City, as I walked across Oakland’s Bay Bridge to the special screening last month, I was reminded of my own relationship to the foggy Bay Area suburb. I’m a Filipino-born, San Francisco-raised military kid who writes and raps about my upbringing as a first-generation immigrant kid growing up in the city. My father was driving my mother, me and my two sisters in a Nissan Sentra to my Lolo and Lola’s home to Daly City from our home on Treasure Island so we could spend time with our cousins. When the paternal family began immigrating to the Bay Area in the late 1970s and 1980s, Daly City was where they chose to stay.

Rocky Rivera is a Bay Area rapper and author. Photo: Vivian Chen

By default, it became the source of many of my childhood memories. Daly City was where I had dance rehearsals every Sunday in Westlake Park. It was where my cousins ​​and I used to cross Gellert Boulevard to buy Sour Power candies when we were old enough to go to the store unattended. Although I grew up in San Francisco, Daly City was where my friends and I headed for garage parties and early morning silog breakfasts in Ling Nam.

I wondered if “Easter Sunday” could live up to those memories. Throughout the film, I searched for the line of trees on Gellert Boulevard, the sound of whistling BART trains, the huge parking lot of the Serramonte shopping center. Much to my dismay, there were none of those familiar sounds and sights. Despite some nice establishing shots of Interstate 280’s signature “Gateway to Peninsula” and the colorful “housing box” Daly City is known for, the film could have been set in Anywhere, USA ( it was mostly filmed in Vancouver.)

‘Easter Sunday’ writer Ken Cheng is interviewed during a ceremony at Daly City Town Hall. Photo: Stephen Lam/The Chronicle

Writer Ken Cheng, who grew up in Daly City, was intentional about shooting the film here, which could have been a blessing and a curse. Although the classic “rice cooker” foggy joke over Daly City has arrived, many of its nostalgic landmarks have been left behind – a missed opportunity for those of us Bay Area natives who hoped for an authentic depiction of Daly City.

Koy, who never lived in the Bay Area and grew up in Tacoma, Wash., also missed the mark a few times. Take, for example, the fact that his character rocks an LA Dodgers cap for most of the movie. We can forgive some things, but we can’t take a Dodgers hat off someone from Daly City. Of all the outlandish plot devices, this was downright offensive.

But what resonated was the heart of the film: Filipino families are large and complicated.

(Warning: Spoilers ahead)

Tito Manny (Joey Guila, left), Regina (Elena Juatco), Eugene (Eugene Cordero), Joe Valencia (Koy), Tita Theresa (Tia Carrere), Tita Yvonne (Melody Butiu) and Susan (Gaston) reunite for a family gathering on “Easter Sunday” Photo: Ed Araquel/Universal Pictures

The film is about a Filipino comedian named Joe Valencia who returns home to Daly City for Easter Sunday after moving to Los Angeles to break into show business. Portrayed as an unreliable divorced father at the start of the film, Valencia takes his teenage son with him on the road trip as a last-ditch effort to spend some quality time with him.

Valencia had also sent his cousin money to invest in a Filipino food truck business. He therefore takes advantage of this trip to verify the company. While tasked with mediating the sibling rivalry between his mother and his aunt, played by legendary Pinay actress Tia Carrere, he soon realizes that his cousin squandered the money, and what ensues is a mad dash for lost money – reminiscent of the plot of the 1995 comedy “Friday”, starring Ice Cube and Chris Tucker.

Tia Carrere thrilled to ‘finally play Filipino’ in Jo Koy’s ‘Easter Sunday’

Eugene (Cordero, left) and Joe Valencia (Koy) star in “Easter Sunday.” Photo: Universal Pictures

I had brought my cousin, mainly because she is mixed-race like Koy, and my partner to the Daly City premiere to see if the film’s Filipino spirit resonated with them. I looked to my left to see my cousin’s reaction, who could relate to the Tita sibling rivalry in our own family. To the right, I looked at my partner, who recalled the childhood burden of having to mediate these rivalries, stemming from his own complicated mother-son relationship and Filipino American upbringing. I found myself supporting Valence’s family as if it were my own, wishing we could all be healed by turning on the Magic Sing microphone playing Black Eyed Peas hits.

At the end of the film, Koy addressed the audience, sharing stories of Hollywood rejection, which he also exchanged with Filipino actors Carrere and Lou Diamond Phillips, who were in “Easter Sunday” but not present at the screening. local. It made me realize that it took many stories to get to this one, one that finally got the approval of studio powerhouses DreamWorks/Universal and Spielberg himself.

Tia Carrere (left) and Lydia Gaston play a pair of feuding sisters in ‘Easter Sunday’. Photo: DreamWorks/Universal

As the crowd exited the auditorium, I realized how truly special it was that “Easter Sunday” was set in Daly City. It reminded me that not all stories have to be 100% me to be true. We all have our own stories to tell, and “Easter Sunday” is just the start of many more to be told on the big screen.

It’s easy to criticize but hard to create — two facets I know of being both a writer and an artist. We aim for progress, not perfection. Also, we shouldn’t put all our eggs in one basket, not even on a day like Easter Sunday.

“Easter Sunday” (PG-13) is in theaters Friday, August 5.

Alicia R. Rucker