You can read the title of Gene Cajayon’s The Debut several ways. Most obviously, it’s his first feature film, 10-odd years in the making. The Debut also refers to literal and figurative events in the film: much of the story takes place during Rose Mercado’s (Bernadette Balagtas) 18th birthday, when she traditionally would be considered a debutante. Her birthday also opens her brother Ben’s (Dante Basco) eyes to the larger Filipino community he has so assiduously avoided. Last, but certainly not least, The Debut is also one of the first feature-length movies about the Filipino American community and experience to be released in the States.
Technically speaking, when The Debut first premiered in 2000, it wasn’t the first Fil-Am feature (Francisco Aliwalas’ Disoriented has it beat by at least a year), but outside of the film festival circuit, Aliwalas’ dramedy made little impact. Cajayon’s movie, on the other hand, was aggressively promoted across the country and its release coincided with that of Rod Pulido’s Flip Side; both Fil-Am films often appeared at the same festivals, and, along with Laurice Gillen’s less heralded American Adobo (2001), auspiciously signaled the coming of age of Fil-Am filmmaking. That all four of these films deal, on some level, with young Filipino men coming of age is no coincidence. Especially in The Debut, Ben’s journey to ethnic self-awareness aspires to symbolize a similar coming out for the Fil-Am community.
A high school senior and aspiring artist/illustrator, Ben’s dream is to go to art school. This conflicts with the ambitions of his stern father Roland (Tirso Cruz III), a postman who wants Ben to achieve a higher status, preferably by studying medicine at UCLA. When his father dismisses Ben’s art as “silly little pictures,” he doesn’t just shut out his family, but also, by extension, his Filipino heritage. When his Chicano and white friends Doug (Jayson Schaal) and Rick (Brandon Martin) unexpectedly come into his house during preparations for Rose’s party, an embarrassed Ben hurriedly shoos them out before they see too much of his “ethnic” environment, whether the smells from the kitchen or the cultural curios that adorn the home.
The bulk of The Debut takes place later that evening at the party, held at a local high school gym. Here Ben, suffused in Filipino-ness, begins to find the beauty in his community (not to mention one particular young woman). This contrasts with a side trip he, Doug, and Rick take to an all-white party where an obnoxiously drunk white woman shocks Ben into recognizing that, just because he yearns to be white, it doesn’t mean he is. As Rose admonishes him earlier, “You’re just as brown as the rest of us.”
With such conspicuous racial politics, it’s no wonder that Cajayon’s “little film that could” (as one of the DVD featurettes is entitled) consciously shoulders the responsibility of representing Filipino-ness for the Fil-Am community and to a broader public largely ignorant about anything Filipino, except maybe for lumpia (Filipino style egg rolls). Many of the DVD extras—and The Debut packs in an astounding number of them for such a modest, independent film—underline that the movie is “for us, by us.” As one featurette chronicles the intense grassroots promotions that accompanied the film’s city-by-city distribution campaign, it resembles the campaign for Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow, where Asian Americans were all but goaded into seeing the film as some kind of ethnic civic duty.
But while ethnicity is incidental in BLT‘s storyline, The Debut explicitly engages it. There’s a long tradition of Asian American films—most famously Wayne Wang’s trifecta, Dim Sum (1985), Eat a Bowl of Tea (1989), and Joy Luck Club (1993)—that simultaneously explore identity alongside the generation gap between immigrant parents and their American-born and -raised children. One of the key tensions in The Debut is how the second generation of Filipino youth forms an identity amongst white, Black, and Filipino cultural influences. (That Flip Side deals with the same issues suggests their pervasiveness for Fil-Am filmmakers.)
The Debut appears to run through a checklist of Fil-Am cultural references designed as intra-community jokes as well as educate the cultural outsider. Whether it’s predictable scenes of young teens playing basketball, colorful ethnic costumes or lingering shots of food platters, the film tries to showcase Filipino/Fil-Am culture, but with more style than substance.
More important, The Debut explores less obvious concerns within the community. For example, Roland, like many highly educated but underemployed immigrant men, works in a blue-collar profession that is an embarrassment to the Mercado patriarch from the Philippines, Lolo Carlos (played by legendary Philippines’ star Eddie Garcia). Likewise, Ben meets his romantic interest Annabelle (Joy Bisco) when she’s being aggressively hassled by her ex-boyfriend Gusto (Darion Basco, one of the five Basco family members in the film), a nod to the issue of domestic violence in the Fil-Am community (an issue more prominently taken up by Filipino-Canadian filmmaker Romeo Candido in 2002’s Lolo’s Child).
At the same time, Ben’s coming of age is fairly straightforward, with flatly constructed friends and an underdeveloped backstory that only hints at more complex class, family, and immigration experiences. The tri-generational conflict among Lolo Carlos, Roland, and Ben is most intriguing, creating the moments of genuine tension. However, is buried under a parade of overlong scenes where young men play basketball and bust frenetic dance moves.
Whether it is fair to compare The Debut with other “ethnic” features is open to debate, but it must be noted that the “coming of age cum generation gap conflict” storyline has been milked heavily in both Fil-Am and Asian American cinema. Though The Debut feels fresher than Mina Shum’s Double Happiness (1994) and is better produced than Disoriented and Flip Side, the storyline has become almost as familiar as the one where ethnic films center around family and food (i.e., Soul Food , Catfish In Black Bean Sauce , Tortilla Soup , and What’s Cooking? ).
Still, The Debut is an important film, if not always an interesting one. The stories behind it—its production, marketing, and relationship to the larger Fil-Am community—are most compelling. And to this degree, all the extras make The Debut DVD enticing. These include excellent commentary by Cajayon and Castro, “making of” featurettes, deleted scenes, trailers, and a gag reel. Another bonus is John Castro’s mid-‘90s short, Diary of a Gangsta Sucka, a brilliantly witty look at suburban youth’s gangsta fascination. Until now, this film, never distributed commercially, was often spoken about but rarely seen. The DVD package also offers a book, The Debut: Making of a Filipino American Film, with the shooting script, plus an excellent essay on contemporary Filipino American social history written by scholar Dawn Mabalon. The Debut offers a glimpse into a rich and complex world, but the additional materials provide a more thorough and comprehensive examination.