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Asian American Film Canon Film Reviews

‘Colma: the Musical’ tackles suburban malaise with catchy tunes and crudeness

Colma: The Musical (2006), directed by Richard Wong.

Face it, your hometown probably isn’t the best setting for a musical. Most of us are dying to run away from the dead-end local joints, deadbeats, and the people we grew up with for the promise of something more. But what if it’s all you’ve got? Back in 2006, Richard Wong’s Colma: The Musical fulfilled this for the Walking Dead-like Bay Area suburbs. So how does it hold up today? It’s a mixed bag.

On one hand, this is a mandatory hidden gem for any Asian-American film nerd (Exactly who I was when I first viewed this in the Pacific Arts Movement’s offices as an intern for the San Diego Asian Film Festival). Three misfit friends Billy (Jake Moreno), Rodel (H.P. Mendoza), and Maribel (L.A. Renigen), croon about their coming-of-age misgivings in Colma, a town where there are more folks buried in cemeteries than there are alive–1.5 million dead to 1,100 alive to be exact. They prod, tease, and support each other through new opportunities, crash college parties, and contemplate moving away. The residents of the town are enfolded in their lack of purpose living inside it, frustrating them even more. To see Filipino Americans (Rodel and Maribel) take the helm as disillusioned young adults is satisfying, and they provide an acidic foil to Billy’s stargazing dreams of stardom and adoration from women who perpetually break his heart.

H.P. Mendoza steals the show and flips you off while doing it. The literary, musical, and performative style of Rodel’s bleak commentaries on Colma shine through the suburban fog. Mendoza, as screenwriter and songwriter for the film, guides us through the coming-of-age suffocation with chapters within the movie titled Big Journey and What Not and Hope Neither One of Us Dies, and songs like “Things Will Get Better” and “Goodbye, Stupid.” Thematic cohesion also complements Richard Wong’s cinematography. Long takes through malls and apartment parties bring us along every cynical performance. It’s difficult not to be absorbed in the dread of our existence watching Colma, but hey, we’re not alone… and at least we can sing about it right?

Billy (Jake Moreno), Maribel (L.A. Renigen), and Rodel (H.P. Mendoza).

We’re not left entirely numb, however. Maribel’s raucous energy in “Crash the Party” is revitalizing and uninhibited. Heavy-hearted beats in ¾ mourning from the song “Deadwalking” (shot entirely in a cemetery no less) bring us vulnerable moments from both Rodel and Maribel. Billy’s regional theater debut in “Friend Joseph” is so comically literal about the actual experience that it needs to be heard over and over again (which you can do, by the way).

Unfortunately, Colma: The Musical isn’t afraid to cross other lines, and that’s where the film begins to show its age. F-words, c-words, and emasculating gay jokes frequently dampen the film’s attitude as evidence of a time gone by and reminds us of the damage that our society hasn’t fully healed or learned from yet. There’s a definitive case to be made for their inclusion as a period piece of the 2000s, but they have also served to hamstring an otherwise great movie with edgy humor, preventing the film from being more relevant today. The sound mix on much of the music is also a frequent challenge, which is a huge shame as the compositions and lyrics are so catchy. If anyone reading this can get us a remastered album, I’m in.

Still from the film.

By the film’s final act, the film successfully makes us contemplate whether our main characters are good people. These morally gray characters are valuable, especially as Asian Americans who often lack more dimensional representation. However, upon multiple viewings of the film, I couldn’t shake the concern that these friends perpetuate the snide microaggressions that they had normalized throughout the entire film. The film leaves much unresolved, doesn’t quite do its characters justice. Maribel’s half-baked resolution is evidence of this.

Colma: the Musical is a fantastic musical with flawed characters. At the same time, Colma is a great introduction to Asian American filmmaking, but is ultimately a relic of its time. H.P. Mendoza and Richard Wong have gone on to do amazing work in Bitter Melon and Come As You Are respectively, growing their talents with films like Colma. Independent micro-budget musicals, though far from perfect, are loudly proclaiming to the world that we are here.

Rating: 3.5 / 5

Colma: The Musical is being reviewed as part of our series to review “The 20 best Asian American films of the last 20 years” as selected by Brian Hu and a team of Asian American film critics. This entry is #12 on that list.

To view the rest of the entries in this series, click here.


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