As bio-pics go, Paul Soriano’s Kid Kulafu succeeds by laying off the hagiography to focus on aspects of Manny Pacquiao’s childhood that are shared by aspiring boxers everywhere.
Before the final credits roll for Kid Kulafu, Paul Soriano’s movie about the childhood of Manny Pacquiao, the standard bio-pic epilogue runs listing the accomplishments of the subject, which made me laugh. Not that the accomplishments aren’t noteworthy – it’s just very doubtful that anyone watching the film with me would need those championships listed. I mean, I barely follow boxing outside of the movies on the sport, and I know who Pac-man is, and why he is a giant in his home country of the Philippines. It’s like a bio-pic of the early Beatles ending with a statement that they went on to have chart-topping hits or one of a young Marilyn Monroe noting that she went on to be a popular actress and sex symbol. It’s hardly necessary, but such a standard practice for the bio-pic genre that I can see the reason for including it, even though I doubt that in 100 years Filipinos will have forgotten who Manny was and how humble his origins were. Thankfully, the epilogue is one of the few times where the limits of the bio-pic intrude into Kid Kulafu, which is an achievement considering how easy it would be to make either a dry film or saccharine one out of the rags to riches story that has been the life of Emmanuel Pacquiao so far.
The title of Kid Kulafu refers to the fight moniker Pacquiao took for his first bouts as a boy before he could be called even an amateur boxer. Kulafu is a brand of Chinese wine whose bottles young Pacquiao (Buboy Villar) collects and washes to earn money. Kulafu also a Filipino Tarzan-inspired comic book hero. Take your pick as to the inspiration for the name, but in either case, young Emmanuel and his uncle/trainer Rosalio (Alex Medina) were probably punching above their weight with that self-promotion at the time. A wild jungle boy he wasn’t, but you can’t really fault the pair for trying something to stand out from the crowd of boys competing for the same chances under similar circumstances. There are lots of boys who start out informally trained by fathers and uncles who need a break to make a next step, to find a trainer who knows how to navigate through boxing’s twisting roads. It cant hurt to get the crowd chanting one’s name in such circumstances. The fact that there are lots of kids like that, and that the film presents Pacquiao as one of them is one of the strengths of the film.
As a bio-pic, Kid Kulafu largely succeeds in telling its story while overcoming the traps of the genre that often make them less than compelling films to watch. Director Soriono and writer Frolion Medina focus on those moments of Emmanuel’s childhood where a boxing career might have come to a premature end – a battle between insurgents and soldiers on the family farm, a mother who forbids boxing, a failed weigh-in, and so on. Such moments create dramatic tension, but the effectiveness of those moments is muted because we are dealing with the biography of famous person and we already know what fate has in store. The film succeeds by staying away from offering up a premature hagiography (with one notable exception) so we can forget that we are watching the biography of successful person to focus on the boy on at hand. Soriano and Medina draw attention to the challenges of the amateur boxing circuit and those involved in creating future boxers while filming the life of a person caught up in it, so I could remain interested in watching the story through to the end.
Pacquiao’s humble origins aren’t portrayed as something that gives our future hero exceptional character or drive to succeed in a heavy handed “poverty is a secret blessing” cliche. Instead, the story as presented is so typical that it could apply to hundreds of thousands of boys in the Philippines and millions around the world who need a shot of some sort to lift them out of poverty and find inspiration from Bruce Lee films and place their hopes in boxing. By doing so, I think Kid Kulafu captures one aspect of the adult fighter that makes him so popular – that he is able to stand in for every boy who has gone hungry, who has had a largely absent father, who has had to make a living selling bread or peanuts door to door to help feed a family. His childhood and early boxing career isn’t actually all that exceptional. While the film forgoes insight into the origins of what makes him a successful boxer in the future when many others like him fail, we gain insight into his tremendous popularity.
Buboy Villar is perfect to carry the role of the young fighter, and while he has been around for awhile now, I hope that this role signals that we will be seeing more of him. Alessandro de Rossi is also fine as Pacquiao’s mother, Dionsia, the future famous “Mama D”, before she was a ringside fixture. Technically, the film works well when capturing the undisciplined energy of youth boxing matches without the editing becoming too intrusive. The film isn’t overly cruel to the young men in the ring and during their training (and it might be a little soft in that regard) in order to score points with the audience by showing pseudo concern with the cost of boxing on its participants. Kid Kulafu is a boxing film with kids in the ring, which may be disturbing for some, but as boxing films go, it covers an aspect of the sport that hasn’t been filmed very often. It’s worth viewing as a boxing film in and of itself regardless of the biography attached to it.