A litigant always loses, goes one casually delivered but very potent line in Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial. Set in a modern yet benighted German city, this magical realist novel proceeds to not just evoke this oft-presumed saying, but enlarges to incriminate an entire judicial system. It's a figment of Kafka’s imagination, a work of fiction, but it could very well be the marrow of Veronica Velasco’s Last Supper No. 3, a comic film on the same Kafkaesque themes, derived from an actual court case docketed in the Philippines just a few years ago.
Last Supper No. 3 recounts one curious case revolving around a missing tapestry. The man in the firing line is one Wilson Nanawa, an outwardly decent and unassuming gay man who toils as an employee for an advertising firm. His job entails, among other things, renting and taking care of props sourced from his own neighborhood. After one particular shoot for a corned beef commercial, however, Wilson discovers the disappearance of the titular wall décor. The owner, a money-grubbing man named Gareth Pugeda, insists that if the family heirloom (a kitschy one, yes, but he is adamant about its value: his father’s gift from Saudi Arabia) could not be replaced, its full monetary worth should have to be refunded. It’s a hefty sum, but at first it seems as if the grasping character and his mother have agreed to a much lower amount. It’s but a prelude to a nightmare: a lawsuit.
Last Supper No. 3, on the surface, is a funny and uproarious story, but its mordant satire can also sensitize. While we laugh belly laughs at the sight of the unsuspecting Wilson Nanawa being blindsided by one absurdity after another, the legal escalation that proceeds from this seemingly negligible case is mutually destructive. Estafa is compounded by charges of serious physical injuries (it’s a long story), but it still seems like a manageable case for Wilson and his co-worker Andoy to hurdle. As the days and months and years wear on, however, the wear and tear – mostly on Wilson – becomes both unbelievably comic and absurd.
Much of the absurdity is registered to perfection by Joey Paras who plays Wilson Nanawa. We see by slow, painful but funny degrees the trajectory of his character proceed from hope to disbelief to resignation. One wonders, though, about the filmmakers’ decision to make its much-abused doormat of a character a gay man. Should one be resigned to the stereotype of the gay man as a lightning rod for abuse to savor the comic pleasures of this film? Joey, meanwhile, essays his role like no other, with the right dose of vulnerability and sensitivity, on his tortuous, circuitous way to justice.
Many of the courtroom proceedings (the protraction of cases, the rehearsed testimonies) and what happens around the case (the vampirism of lawyers, the fixers and the bribable red tape and bureaucracy) are Kafkaesque in their absurdity, but Veronica Velasco and Jinky Laurel did not have to invent much of the script. It is an adaptation of a story by Winston Acuyong based on his real-life experiences. As it turned out, its absurdities have lent well to a comic evocation. What is perhaps more absurd is that there are more absurd cases than this.
Watching Last Supper No. 3, I sometimes balked at laughing even at its funniest moments. The details were all too familiar and soon came flooding back to me. As a child, I’d seen firsthand what was transpiring onscreen. My mother was an assistant provincial fiscal who would often bring home her work. At suppers, she would recount stories about defendants with evil eyes and corrupt judges. She would bring home state evidence, bags of marijuana, guns, jewelry. At home, she would rehearse the witnesses as they sat nervously and mutely in a corner, all seemingly according to her version of the truth. But at night, she would sit up bolt upright in bed when the dogs howled for some reason. She would go around the house, marching up and down the stairs, switching on and off the lights, like a restless sleepwalker. Even then I knew: the law could swallow you whole.