[By Matt Fernandez]
From the ghetto to the Getty and now to Hollywood.
After conquering the worlds of stand-up streaming specials and stadium tours, comedian Jo Koy now turns his eye to the silver screen, bringing his Filipino-centric, familial style to the theaters with his new film Easter Sunday.
Easter Sunday is Koy’s theatrical acting debut and is loosely based on his life. Koy plays struggling comedian/actor Joe Valencia who visits his family on the titular holiday and finds himself juggling the petty bickering of quirky relatives while also trying to grow his career. As a film primarily set in the Filipino hub Daly City, Calif., full of references to balikbayan boxes, Goldilocks halo-halo and Manny Pacquiao worship, Easter Sunday is an unabashed celebration of Pinoy culture.
For actor Tia Carrere, who plays Tita (aunt) Theresa, and many other Filipinos, Easter is a significant holiday due to the country’s heavy Catholic influence and its deep cultural emphasis on family.
“One of my most beloved memories was all of us kids in a line making lumpia: one’s job is separating the wrapper, one is putting the tablespoon of pork, then the chicken, then the dried shrimp, and the julienned vegetables down the line,” Carrere said. “Food and camaraderie and family was central.”
As a former colony, the Philippines and its people are tightly woven into the tapestry of American history, especially following World War II, and yet Easter Sunday is only the fourth production in recent years to feature Filipino characters as leads following Diane Paragas’ Yellow Rose, Jay Oliva’s Trese, and Dante Basco’s The Fabulous Filipino Brothers (honorary mention to Ned and his lola in Spider-Man: No Way Home). Easter Sunday, which Steven Spielberg and Amblin Entertainment produced, presents a hope that mainstream audiences may be ready to embrace Filipino culture the way it has Black, Japanese, or Hispanic cultures.
Though Filipino actors and roles are not new to Hollywood, until recently, they were neither the most notable characters nor the most positive portrayals. Carrere believes Easter Sunday represents an empowering time for Filipinos, who can now see themselves in a film and laugh with rather than at their kinfolk.
“I started out in a time when there was nobody out there that looked like me, and in some cases, it was very much a fetishizing of the brown skin or the almond eyes,” Carrere said. “I’ve had to play the girl in the tea house. I played the prostitute. I played the Viet Cong terrorist. Now we’ve come to this place where our stories as Filipino-Americans are in front of thousands of screens in a theater; our family is front and center. It’s not the backdrop for somebody else’s story.”
Though Netflix has been Koy’s primary vehicle to stardom, he chose to eschew the streaming platform in favor of a theatrical release, citing a sense of duty to inspire young Filipinos by showing their lives on the big screen. Carrere believes that there is validation in enjoying a film and all its jokes as a community. Because of this, she regards the film’s delayed release as a blessing.
“There’s a power in numbers, and there’s a power to showing up in person,” Carrere said. “Prior to now, I think people were afraid to go to the movies because of where we are in the world with COVID and everything. So the fact that it’s coming out in August rather than in April, I think we have a chance for grandma and grandpa and titas to see the movie to enjoy it together and see it as a family, their family up on the big screen.”
While part of this newfound prominence may be due to the growing presence of Asian Americans as a viable economic target demographic or increasingly holding positions of power in entertainment, it may also result from younger generations being more involved in consuming and creating content.
“I think young Asian Americans are also more aware, so they’re more proactive,” said actor Lydia Gaston, who portrays Susan, a fictionalized version of Koy’s mother. “They’ve been pushing the envelope, and I think it’s good for us.”
“Also, we have the technology today, too. You can make a movie with your iPhone,” Carrere added. “It’s more of a democratization of the arts, which makes it a little more accessible.”
At its core, though, Easter Sunday is a Filipino story, though perhaps that hyper-specificity gives it a broad appeal. For Carrere, the elements that make Easter Sunday a truly Filipino story is the focus on family, including honor, being present, the guilt they make us feel, and overcoming the rivalries and hurt feelings that may arise.
“When you aim for the specific, it becomes universal,” added Carrere. “Each character is so specific in the movie that even the minor characters to me are not minor to me because they fed us so much. It’s very specifically Filipino but also universal.”