Chai Fonacier on ‘Nocebo’ experience, fellow Filipino talents abroad

SOME of us have known Chai Fonacier long before she made a splash on the big screen. If you’re a voracious scroller of the internet way back in 2016, your Facebook friends have probably shared her videos a few times before you found yourself visiting their page called “Sutukil Sauce.”

It was the beginning for most of us, when we found out that she’s really just likable, and her warmth and cleverness contribute so much to her charm. For those who follow her, they know that Chai is no novice when it comes to the entertainment world.

After landing from regional roles to international ones, the “Nocebo” star shared her insights during the shoot of her first Hollywood movie. It took a while before the world saw the importance of diversity in the media—good thing the world is changing.

For the eloquent Chai, she thanked the Bisayan art community.

“Being able to put our culture and our stories and our plight forward. We have been, for the longest time, used as only token representation, or worse, our origins and language ridiculed, used as a butt of jokes, so much so that for decades we were conditioned to dislike it when we hear it in cinema, music, literature (deemed as “baduy”). This is changing now, thanks to the collective effort of the Bisaya art community everywhere in the Visayas and Mindanao (like local filmmakers, or Vispop, to name a few),” Chai said in a digital interview.

She also explained how, from the standpoint of domestic cinema, which is still fighting for a more solid VisMin representation, Chai wants to champion the distribution and production of local regional stories.

“Because, who can better play these roles than we who are from those regions? And this is a fact: We do not have a dearth of talent and skill in Cebu.”

Meanwhile, the Filipino community outside the country remains to have a firm bond that takes friendships to another level. Chai, who was in Dublin, Ireland during the shoot, spoke enthusiastically about the warmth she received from her “kababayans.”

“On one of my last shoot dates, I was able to spend the day with Filipino background actors from everywhere in the Philippines who are now based in either the UK or Ireland—people from Dumaguete, Manila, Mindanao, Iloilo etc. I was so glad to see how well they were taken care of there during the shoot. They told me of their lives there, how they miss the Philippines; what a relief it was to be in a huge group of people speaking the same or familiar-sounding languages,” Chai said.

Chai was especially pleased with how quickly Filipino actors adopted acting advice according to the Irish team. She pointed out that the set was even more lively with the Filipino actors around especially when they’re caught randomly belting out a Mariah Carey song.

“In one of the breaks, the background actors were singing in their waiting areas. One of the assistant directors said: “Is this normal? How many Mariah Careys and Whitney Houstons do you have in your country? You all sound so good!” she said.

Speaking of the non-Filipino team, she mentioned her excellent working relationships with the entire Irish crew on the set. Despite the fact that she wasn't present in every scene involving Eva and Mark, they were always enthusiastic when she had the chance to talk to them.

“Both of them—I can’t stress enough what a joy it was to watch them do their scenes, that sometimes I would end up watching them and forget that I was part of the scene. It’s a given—they’re both skilled and talented actors.”

“Billie Gadsdon—I had fun talking to such a precocious child, and the same was true with Sariah (Reyes-Themistocleous), who played my daughter in the film. Anthony Falcon was such a joy to work with—we had multiple sessions where I coached him on his Cebuano lines because he doesn’t speak the language, and it was he who asked for assistance (which I was more than glad and willing to provide). He’s an actor who does his assignment and has a high regard for the art of storytelling. Beyond that, his own body of work speaks wonderfully for his craft,” Chai said.

Chai also mentioned Anthony Paragoso, the actor who portrayed the foreman in the movie, and how their friendship was filled with laughter and insights.

“My only regret was that he had to go home straight away and there was no time to hang out after the shoot,” Chai said.

This is definitely a moment-in-the-sun for local talents to be seen on the international screen, but for Chai who can be seen on the screen, believes that a film is a product of “community work.”

“We often forget that we have many more people behind the film: from producers, all the way to the utility department. I point this out because actors going out into the world does a lot, for sure, but it can only do so much. I am all for putting our stories out, and storytelling entails community work. The future of Cebuano stories in cinema does not solely rest on the shoulders of actors. Bianca Balbuena, who is Cebuana, has helped open doors not just for actors, but for many film workers locally,” she explained.

The growing star hasn't forgotten the common struggles she believes are worth fighting for, like the struggles to put out regional stories against powerful outside influences like capitalism and some aspects of Manila Imperialism.

Since “Nocebo” is already out in the Philippine cinemas, a lot of us are going to recognize Chai from now on as “Diana,” the Filipino nanny who introduced traditional folk healing to the main characters of the movie. While this adds another feather to Chai’s hat—a well-deserved achievement for her and the Cebuano community—Chai still has her feet on the ground. She thought fondly of her days working on the Sutukil production when asked whether there was a role she could play again.

“Saop ni Diniris! Haha. Honestly though, I miss playing that character and writing skits with Samantha Solidum and the rest of the Sutukil Sauce group for it,” she replied.