‘Lumpia with a Vengeance’ catapults Filipino culture onto the silver screen

(Lauren Schatzman | Daily Trojan)

Upon entering the warm-lit halls beside the Ray Stark Family Theater on a cozy Wednesday night, the scent of garlic rice and freshly fried lumpia rolls danced in the air as attendees awaited the screening of Filipino superhero film “Lumpia with a Vengeance.” Friends, families and members of USC’s Troy Philippines student organization mingled with plates of crispy lumpia rolls blanketed in sweet chili sauce as they admired tables of comic books featuring “Kuya” (Tagalog for elder brother). 

The film depicts a passionate high school girl, Rachel, alongside Kuya—the hero-protagonist—fighting crime by launching a lumpia into the mouths of the mysterious villain’s allies who plot to ruin her parents’ wedding. The hero role of Kuya in their cinematic universe alternates between two brothers – one of which is seeking justice for childhood culture-induced bullying that his older brother faced. Despite absurdity in weapon choice and referencing commonalities of “stereotypical” Filipinos in a comedic light, the film highlights the serious intercultural struggles of physical appearance, academic comparison and dialect differentiation. 

The screening of the action-comedy indie film was followed by a live Q&A session with Patricio Ginelsa, the film’s director, an alumnus of the School of Cinematic Arts and arts laboratory manager at the Marshall Experiential Learning Center.  Heartwarmingly, Ginelsa discussed after the screening that Filipino communities nationwide kick-started his dream project by crowdfunding the nine-years-in-the-making movie. Creating his own “Deep Fried Universe” developed from his maturation of thought to withstand industry pressure to not make the film too Filipino.

Nikia Fenix, a freshman majoring in media arts and practice, noted her amazement to witness “so many Filipino last names and creative voices who are working in all aspects of production.”

The predominantly Filipino cast and crew reflected the authenticity in the storytelling of the plot-driven film. The elements of cultural relatability and “being in an audience of Filipinos who tend to be…dramatic” elevated the “emotional and dramatic” plot twists, Fenix said.

“Someone who looks like us who has the same culture,  understanding the jokes…only Filipino people [would] understand…was just very unique,” Jessica Labrador, a junior majoring in law, history and culture, said. “Up until now…a lot of Filipino people have been very behind the scenes for a lot of big movies. But there hasn’t been too much [representation] in terms of a feature film surrounding a primarily Filipino character.[Only those] who take inspiration from Filipinos…[or] who have those kinds of features. Explicit representation rather than just the reference here and there and actually having Filipino culture  be the forefront of a story.”

Almost a decade in the making, genuine community shined throughout the film through the use of VHS-taped flashbacks of the real married couple portrayed in the film falling in love in their young adult years, in addition to video-call footage of Ginelsa and his team reaching their $30,000 Kickstarter goal. 

As an aspiring actor, Daevenmar Mendoza, a freshman majoring in theater, was particularly touched by the film. 

“Seeing myself represented on screen is something that can truly inspire me…Growing up, there weren’t a lot of Filipino icons that I could look up to in Western culture, but it’s those little steps that we made with producing our own films …that we can see things like this, inching towards that broader scale of being more representative in the larger media,” Mendoza said. 

Particularly, the common shared memory of children bringing ethnic foods to school and feeling ashamed of their lunch’s “foreign” scents was a pivotal moment in “Kuya’s” mission in seeking “revenge.” The title works conjointly with this theme, in that lumpia is the standard poster image (and often the only known basis representation of Filipino culture). The weaponized portrayal of lumpia is a fighting symbol for Filipinos hoping to break the barriers of white-dominated Hollywood.

The three-course events of the night — reception, screening and Q&A — satisfied the hunger for Filipino representation in the superhero and comic genre on the silver screen almost as much as the crispy lumpia that catalyzed a gateway for Filipino-Americans in superhero films.