From ‘Masahista’ to ‘Ang Probinsyano’: Coco Martin’s indelible appeal

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Rodel Nacianceno — screen name Coco Martin — has had an interesting trajectory as an actor, from playing an industrial sex worker in Brillante Mendoza’s “Masahista” to bagging the role of the iconic Panday. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — A little less than 15 years ago, Rodel Nacianceno played a bit role in a film entitled “Ang Agimat: Anting-Anting ni Lolo,” which starred Ramon Revilla, Sr. and his son Ramon “Bong” Revilla, Jr, who would later on portray iconic Panday in two films. This year, Nacianceno will be the latest Panday; yet the road to occupy the legendary hero’s shoes was not easy. He wasn’t born a Poe or a Revilla. He was just a young man with a name that didn’t sound like a name that befits a star. He had to go through all the motions of wanting to be an actor, from working as a waiter for a local fried chicken chain to getting whatever role he can manage to play.

Perhaps the greatest decision he had to make was to drop his name to make room for one that had both a naughty zing and recall value. He can’t be a star if he remained to be Rodel Nacianceno. He had to be Coco Martin.

It took two years for Martin to land the lead role in the first film of Dante Mendoza, who himself opted to be called Brillante in his initial bid for brilliance. Interestingly, Martin’s first step towards his ambitioned stardom was set in an era where you either test your luck in one of the many studio-financed star-making reality shows, or play the lead in one of the many independent films produced by more enterprising filmmakers. He became Mendoza’s titular masseur in a film — “Masahista” — that will inevitably win a prize in Locarno.

 

While a lot of the film’s critical acclaim was due to Mendoza’s ability to mix gritty reality and sensuality with cinematic lyricism, it helped that Martin had a face that echoes purity and innocence, making his turn as an industrious sex worker tinged with as much gravitas as possible.

From 2005 to 2009, Martin played roles that no matinee idol would dare play. However, Martin was not a matinee idol, even though he had the good looks for it. Instead, he gave a lot of the bleak and poverty-stricken films produced during those years an angelic face, a charismatic presence to root for.

He played a petty crook in Mendoza’s “Tirador,” an unlucky sibling in Adolfo Alix’s “Tambolista,” and a heartbroken homosexual in Alix’s “Daybreak.” In Mendoza’s “Serbis,” he bared not just his soul but also his body, to be the stark symbol of escape in a rotting world of failed dreams and pervading corruption.

It is, however, his turn in Mendoza’s “Kinatay,” where he played a criminology student forced on a metaphorically and literally dark journey to witness a crime, that he peaked. Martin delivered a performance that was not only seamless but also iconic, summing up in a single frame the entire thesis of almost every film about poverty made during the period. That frame is when Martin, given a choice to escape and ride a bus back home, rethinks his strategy and comes to terms with the fact that he is trapped in a situation that fate has chosen for him.

 

Martin’s fortune, however, isn’t married to the roles he has played. His performances for Mendoza have made him a recognizable face in international film circles, even if his name was only familiar in the Philippines to the very few who enjoy watching films that are sublime and depressing.

He started to play minor roles in telenovelas, before landing more sizable roles in films like Laurice Guillen’s “Sa’yo Lamang,” where he plays one of Lorna Tolentino’s children, and Dondon Santos’ “Noy,” which he also co-directed. He was a difficult celebrity to sell to the mass market. His sex scenes with Mercedes Cabral in “Serbis” were sold in bangketas as scandals. He played gigolos and gays in films whose morals were either subtly imparted or weren’t there at all. He started not with a squeaky clean image, but with a history of serious acting, one which cannot be peddled to an audience who would rather pay to see untalented but goodlooking hacks smooch and exchange glances instead of imbibe indelible performances.

In any case, Martin did the undoable. He transitioned from being an indie darling to a mainstream star with relative ease.

His rom-coms weren’t good. He was paired first with Angeline Quinto in Jerome Pobocan’s “Born to Love You,” then with Julia Montes in Manny Palo’s “A Moment in Time.” He doesn’t seem to have enough levity to pass for a stereotypical lover boy. However, his pairings with Sarah Geronimo in Jerry Sineneng’s “Maybe This Time” and Toni Gonzaga in Antoinette Jadaone’s “You’re My Boss” displayed a gift for comedy. It is perhaps this newly found weapon in Martin’s arsenal of talents which made him the right person to pair up with Vice Ganda. “Beauty and the Bestie” grew Martin’s star further, showing that he is not only funny, he is also a very capable and charismatic action star.

Then “Ang Probinsyano” happened. Martin further connected to the people by giving them an overstretched narrative that is entertaining and inspiring, as it is overwrought and seemingly never-ending. Without a recallable family name and with only a career carved from the poverty of this woeful country, he has turned himself into a hero.

In a way, Martin as the titular probinsyano has come to represent what most Filipinos has been starving for whenever they watch television: hope.

 

Ang Probinsyano” however is the point of no return for the once obscure actor. Lest it be completely forgotten, the hugely famous series is in fact a reworking of the 1997 action flick both directed and starred in by Fernando Poe, Jr. While Poe’s film seems to be one of his less iconic works, Martin’s television series proved to be an unexpected hit. It is perhaps because the series, which seems to mix all the tropes of the irresistible Filipino melodrama with low-rent action sequences, tries to cover as much market as possible, from the women who would be able to relate to the hidden romantic longings of Maja Salvador’s character to the men who would see masculine virtues from all the extraordinary sacrifices Martin’s character will commit to.

It may also be because Martin is the right person to portray a righteous policeman in a violence-filled regime where righteous policemen seem to be a fantasy. Martin himself has struck a chord with the public, who now sees him as a portrait of perseverance given his story of starting out as a struggling indie actor who needed to wait tables and strip in front of the camera before making it big.

In a way, Martin as the titular probinsyano has come to represent what most Filipinos has been starving for whenever they watch television: hope. Hope that there exists goodness even in the most sordidly corrupt society as the series seems to advertise, and that there is a reward to all perseverance as Martin’s rags-to-riches tale seems to propose.

From being the guarded property of discerning cineastes who view films as art, Martin became a star of an entire population who sees movies and television as escape.