Death of Nintendo (Philippines/USA, 2020) [LAAPFF 2020]
How does it feel to come of age at the end of history? Set in the early days of Francis Fukuyama’s declaration, Death of Nintendo finds the end of history building up in the lives of the kids from a 1990s provincial suburbia, the same time frame director Raya Martin’s last film, Smaller and Smaller Circles (2017) was set. Writer and producer Valerie Martinez steeps her 1990s Philippine narrative in its most known events and gossips at the time: Mt. Pinatubo’s eruption, the HIV scare, horror anthologies and urban legends of Aswangs. The film’s “coming of age” narrative, however, does more to preserve the same things than to depict change.
The film follows Paolo (Noel Comia, Jr.) a weak middle-class kid and his friends, Kachi (John Vincent Servilla) and the siblings, Gilligan (Jiggerflip Sementilla) and Mimaw (Kim Oquendo). As kids they are seen both having as much fun climbing trees and playing basketball as they are having fun playing Nintendo. Over bottles of Coca-cola, Gilligan challenges the other boys to undergo circumcision once summer comes.
Summer arrives and while playing at a local pool, Paolo meets “It” girl, Shaira (Elijah Alejo), his first love. The boys learn more about Shaira as she tries to befriend Mimaw due to her liking of horror movies and urban legends. The gang hatch a plan for Paolo to get closer to Shaira: they agree to find Aswangs lurking around the local cemetery on Good Friday.
Their plans for Good Friday and circumcision are never without a challenge. Paolo is still treated like a toddler by his overprotective mother, Patricia (Agot Isidro). Gilligan and Mimaw worry about their stressed mother, Maribel (Nikki Valdes). While home for Kachi is trouble, living between his playboy brother Badong (Jude Servilla) and untrusting mother, Shirley (Angelina Kanapi). The cross between their goal as a group and their individual troubles highlights the thematic thread that gives their narrative a “coming of age” trope that they must surpass. To succeed in love and circumcision as their rite of passage.
The kids doing their thing their own way becomes a more pronounced symptom of the lack of paternal figures in their stories. This speaks for the mainly male characteristic of the film: they fill this lack with their imagined masculinity that they captured from pop culture and superstitions. But Death of Nintendo treats this temperament within the gaze of innocence. The elements that might trigger contemporary viewers’ concerns, such as negative conversations about HIV and one character’s use of the ‘N-Word’, are swept under the rug of the films’ cheery tone.
While seemingly problematic, this very attitude of Death of Nintendo is what really takes the film back to the 1990s of Philippine suburbia – a mixed bag of decontextualized cultural droplets from outside brought about by the globalized celebration of open markets mediated by new electronic technologies and cable TV. But as kids with innocent minds, the parallel activities of the world are captured in ways wherein it is possible to maintain innocence by simply ignoring the complications of the world. After all, the end of history signals the end of conflicts, and what is tied up must be unknotted.
In terms of conventions, “coming of age” stories often lean towards demystification and loss of innocence. But Death of Nintendo salvages the innocence that growing up tries to lose, even at the brink of an impending catastrophe. It resists coming of age. This is even reflected within the film’s treatment of its setting. The 1990s here, while having enough proper reference, is depicted anachronistically here with elements from the early-90s (the Pinatubo eruption) and the mid-90s (aswang scare, POG Coca Cola Merchandize) somehow coexisting. Conflicting as it is, this lack of specific time feels safe. It’s a 1990s from nowhere.
These confused historical references reveals the film’s attempt to salvage innocence as an excuse to further deny the unresolved conflicts that surround its protagonist. To take the rite of passage without necessarily going over the matters of growing up. Why bother with the trauma of heartbreak and growing up when we can retain our friendship and enjoy the next new video game console? A rite of passage to eternal adolescence.
But there is no mistake that the success of Death of Nintendo lies in its capability to pass off nostalgia. There is enough in the film to make one giggle and at times mirror yourself if you indeed lived through the time. Although its attempt to return to innocence along with the past that it tries to bring back do not help with providing closure to the story as it tries to trap it in a comfortable past. The only thing that brings Death of Nintendo back to the present is its cynicism for actual historical change as shared by more contemporary Filipino films.
Death of Nintendo was shown as part of the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.