Jaw-dropping in both good ways and bad, “Emir,” vet helmer Chito S. Rono’s deliriously uneven all-singing, all-dancing blockbuster homage to Filipino domestic workers abroad, almost begs to be seen to be believed. Set in a fictional Arabian emirate where Filipino servants are well treated (this really is fiction), the pic was shot in Manila and Morocco, boasts 22 full-blown numbers and reputedly cost the government’s film production arm $1.1 million. “Emir” unexpectedly tanked at the B.O. following a June opening but won Cairo’s artistic contribution award, and fest auds could coddle to the unintended camp.
A mind-boggling mix of styles plays out in the opening, as Amelia (newcomer Frencheska Farr) stands in the desert plaintively singing “Why am I here?” which then melds into a nine-minute production number back in the Philippines in which various workers belt out their feelings about leaving their homeland or staying behind. Barely three minutes go by before the next number starts, this one in early Andrew Lloyd Webber style, about rats invading cornfields in the Llocano region. Before auds can catch their breath, an older woman, looking like an aspirant for the role of Bloody Mary in “South Pacific,” sings to the youngsters, “Never forget your roots.” Wow.
Amelia bids farewell to her rural community and gets a job overseas as a servant in the large household of a sheik (Nadim Hourani). She’s promoted to nanny when the sheika (Valerie Bariou) gives birth to son Ahmed, and soon the self-deprecating Amelia is successfully negotiating the downstairs politics of the largely Filipino staff. Years pass, rumblings from the mythical country’s belligerent northern neighbor grow louder, and war breaks out, forcing Amelia to flee with her charge.
Overseas workers (called OFWs) are such an important part of the Philippines’ economy that there’s a ministry devoted to them, yet apart from pangs of homesickness and scenes in which characters send packages and money home, there’s little sense of what it’s really like to be a stranger in a strange land. Certainly the overscrubbed (in every sense) Arabian Ruritania feels about as real as Zenda.
This is especially odd considering the helmer’s rep for handling political issues (“Escape,” “Dekada 70”) with a bit of punch underneath the romanticism. Filipinos can’t be happy with the way Amelia protests her promotion to head housekeeper with the Uncle Tom-ish declaration that she just wants to be a “loyal servant,” and though her heroics toward the end are meant to tap into a collective source of pride, the plot twist is too weakly executed, as are all scenes requiring tension.
Pic invariably stands or falls on its tunes — pleasantly forgettable songs in an undisciplined number of styles with influences ranging from 1950s Hollywood musicals to “Grease.” Fortunately, the large cast conveys an infectious sense of fun, nowhere more so than in the “we’re jet-setting nannies” number (a hoot), with performers dancing and singing across painted backdrops while sporting Gucci and Prada bags. Farr is likable but bland in the lead, while Dulce steals the show whenever she’s onscreen as Ester, the head housekeeper. Sid Lucero, as Amelia’s unattainable love interest, also eclipses Farr in screen wattage.
Visuals are generically attractive, and production numbers are lensed without too many fireworks. Jerrold Tarog’s editing is surprisingly cohesive considering the number of style shifts.