Chai Fonacier: ‘I believe comedy saves lives’

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Chai Fonacier (Photo by Jill Tan Radovan/InterAksyon)

Chai Fonacier is lighting up the big screen this August.

Fresh from a memorable supporting turn in the Cinemalaya runaway hit, “Respeto,” the former “Pinoy Dream Academy” alumna from Cebu will be seen in not just one but two road movies for the Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino festival that opens in Philippine cinemas nationwide this Wednesday, August 16.

“In ‘Patay na si Hesus,’ I play Jude, a love-struck, directionless human being who happens to be a transman. His own concerns overpower that of his estranged father’s death, and he goes with his family to his father’s funeral in Dumaguete rather half-heartedly,” she told InterAksyon in a recent interview.

“In ‘Pauwi Na,’ I play the role of Pina who is the 19-year-old daughter in the family. Her confusions teeter between claiming her life and not leaving her family behind; and she’s only beginning to experience the struggle in that.”

For her role in “Patay na si Hesus” directed by Victor Villanueva, Chai recalled that she was originally cast to play another character and learned that she will instead play Jude two days into the shoot.

“I panicked like hell, I jumped out of bed and started researching. During the shoot, I observed people—our male cast and crew, a cisgender lesbian crew member whose physicality I thought would fit Jude, and talked to my LGBTQ++ friends about their experiences,” she revealed.

With Jaclyn Jose, Vincent Viado and Melde Montañez in a scene from ‘Patay na si Hesus.’

“I used to teach English in a call center and as a child I was this little tomboy my mom complained about i.e. “bakit ayaw mo’ng mag dress?!” I’m cisgender and mostly straight in real life, and sensitive to the plight of my LGBTQ++ siblings on this earth, as well as being an empath, so I felt I needed to give Jude’s role as much as understanding and justice as I could.”

Chai’s experience in “Pauwi Na” directed by Paolo Villaluna, was equally memorable. The film was shot mostly in Metro Manila and for a freelance actress like her who spent most of her life in Cebu, Manila felt like a huge “kaiju,” the monster that came out of the film, “Pacific Rim” and the same ones that the Power Rangers battled.

“I wore my backpack in front out of paranoia, was harassed by the public transport system itself and arrive at the set drenched in my own tears and someone else’s sweat, and bunked in beds not my own. And the hunger, for crying out loud. Because freelancing makes you eat sardines. My friends and I call it ‘cat food’—it’s pancit canton and sardines or canned tuna. That’s enough sodium to drive you into your grave,” she further remembered.

“So that displacement got channeled into the character of Pina whose family was in the oddest, most uncomfortable spaces throughout their journey.”

With her ‘Pauwi Na’ family: Bembol Roco, Cherry Pie Picache, Jerald Napoles and Meryll Soriano. (Photo courtesy of Paolo Villaluna)

Asked how she developed her appreciation for motion pictures, Chai admitted that she wasn’t a big movie buff when she was a child and during her early teens although she was fan of Cartoon Network shows like Cow and Chicken, Cat Dog, and Courage the Cowardly Dog.

“I was exposed to stories and films through my senior high school teacher who showed us films like ‘Citizen Kane’ and Shakespearean films that I was too young and stupid to understand but later did. He required us to watch ‘Lord of The Rings’ and then we had a test by Monday. I started reading more voraciously thanks to him,” she further shared.

“So then, the power of stories and adventure came to me. Road stories and adventure films, I think, appeal to our inner child. The mystery of the unknown is always fearsome and appealing. Even the universe freaks me out (emphasis on freaks me out) and is awesome to me both at the same time.”

As for working with acclaimed and seasoned actors like Jaclyn Jose in “Patay na si Hesus” and Bembol Roco and Cherry Pie Picache in “Pauwi Na,” Chai discovered that the larger than life actors are very much human, after all.

“In typical Cebuano fashion, I fan-girled internally. I tried to do my job while freaking out inside. I would listen to stories they’d share randomly. I found out that the entertainment business is one funny creature. I learned that the big time actors we’re so giddy to approach are all just humans trying to do jobs right,” she pointed out.

“Can you imagine how much cognitive dissonance goes on in their heads when they go and get their facials? Wait a minute, you guys—we’re actors before we are the complexions we were born with, people. And all that we all really want is a happy life doing what we do best, some income and some food to eat!”

Given that “Patay na si Hesus” is a comedy and “Pauwi Na” also has its share of funny moments, Chai who won the 2015 Cinema One Originals Best Supporting Actress for “Miss Bulalacao” believes that comedy is an important genre in cinema.

“I believe comedy saves lives, as it did mine. Like any other art, it is powerful—it allows us to expose human follies, question systems that don’t work, hold those in power accountable without us having to beat the crap out of each other.”

“And storytelling is a job that’s important to human experience. I’m going to figuratively bludgeon the lights out of anyone who says anything against that, because art is important. Even in times of war and calamity, we need a frigging joke, a story, a song, and some empathy to survive,” she concluded.