The Panti Sisters: even camper than it sounds

A gay son returns to his homophobic family home in full drag, complete with a train so large it’s on-screen long enough for a slow fade into the film’s title: The Panti Sisters. Drag queen Gabbi ー who, with a last name like that, need not change it in drag ー breaks the fourth wall to narrate to us the story of how she made it here, sequins and all. She also has a reveal, because of course she does: sliding off her robe, she wears a purple rhinestoned mini-dress, a sensible choice for a family dinner.

If you thought this was camp, just wait for the rest of the movie.

Gabbi smiling at her childhood self

The Panti Sisters (Jun Lana, 2019) sold itself to me on its premise: three brothers, all kicked out for being queer, return home at the request of their rich, homophobic father (who makes everyone, including his wife and kids, call him “Don Emilio”). He tells them that he is dying and that, in order to claim their part of the inheritance, they not only need to move back home and “be straight”, they also need to produce him a grandchild. With 300 million pesos at stake (around £4.5m or $6m) and all three brothers desperately in need of money, as expected, chaos ensues.

In classic sibling fashion, with an added dose of gay cattiness, Gabriel, Daniel and Samuel all have reasons for getting on each other’s nerves. However, this tale unexpectedly brings the three of them closer together.

Top Tip: Yes, it starts off as fluff, but be prepared for this film to slap you right back down to earth.

Style and genre

Unavoidably, this movie is Camp with a capital C; if Susan Sontag was writing her essay in 2021, she would reference The Panti Sisters. For instance: at one point in the story, Gabriel, Daniel and Samuel get into a fight with a group of thugs. All trained in martial arts by their macho-obsessed father Don Emilio, they gear themselves up with catchphrases and visual effects akin to an episode of Sailor Moon or The Power Rangers. During the fight ー featuring fan thwacking, spinning and high kicking ー editing adds an extra layer, with bright comic book onomatopoeia bursting onto screen and conveniently covering contact points.

Camp stylisation also makes for a healthy dose of comedy ー one that can be rather crude, treading close to the edge of acceptability. Individual lines out of context can give you a clue as to what to expect: “If you want to see this through, you’re going to have to become a lesbian” and “Stop being coy, I’ve been inside your vulva” spring to mind. Watch out for Twilight role play and surprise anal too. I think that’s probably enough for now.

Hidden within outrageous stabs at comedy ー most of which land, in fairness ー is a deep and raw set of emotions. We witness Gabriel and Daniel being kicked out by Don Emilio as teenagers. Sure, humour cuts through this narrative ー Don Emilio and Nora (his mother) compete to come up with increasingly ridiculous reasons why Gabriel turned out gay ー but, at its core, it is real tragedy. I have some issues with the (largely unearned) narrative resolution, which I won’t get into here for fear of spoilers, but the overall heart behind the story came as a welcome surprise.

Soundtrack Stand Out: Dalaga, ALLMO$T

Treatment of (cis) women and their bodies

If we take it back to the initial concept of the film, it becomes obvious that playing into Don Emilio’s plan in any way inherently harms women; his three children know they’re attracted to men, and a few times they resort to trickery and manipulation. If we go through each of the women that the siblings choose ー to carry their child, let’s not forget ー we see that each one is mistreated by patriarchy in a different way. However, each woman also has agency, managing, in her own way, to find the space to create her own arc and craft her own story.

Daniel is the first to bring a girl home to Don Emilio, and he chooses his neighbour Joy. Daniel is talking to his boyfriend about what the inheritance could do for them when he overhears a volatile argument next door. Daniel and Zernan run over and decide to rescue Joy, who is being beaten up by her partner, and take her into their house. Sadly, this is not out of pure generosity; Joy is pregnant, and agrees to pretend that Daniel is the father of her baby in exchange for refuge from her abusive partner. She is welcomed into the family ー but only, it seems, because she (or rather, her body) is valuable to them; their good-naturedness is dependent on her fertility. The injustice of this balance is rather overlooked by the film and its characters. We are left to assume that she consents to the use of her body by the Panti family, since she herself is given little space in the narrative to confirm or deny this.

Daniel (presenting masc for his father) and Joy

Through Samuel, Don Emilio’s illegitimate child, we get access to a different socio-economic background. Through his stories growing up in a poorer household, we see a more rounded view of The Philippines.

Tando, where Samuel grew up

Samuel’s childhood girlfriend Chiqui is still obsessed with him, and he takes advantage of this, pretending to have feelings for her. Her emotional mistreatment is perhaps the most cruel, and her tragic journey is exploited by the narrative and used for Samuel’s growth as a character. She eventually finds her voice and marks her own path, but this is more of an after-thought. Altogether, Chiqui’s story exemplifies the fear of inevitable misogyny I expected from the film’s narrative premise.

Chiqui discovers Samuel’s secret

We accompany Gabriel to drag shows and gay nightlife, metting his fellow performers, fans and friends. One such friend is Kat, who ends up agreeing to mother his children. Gabriel’s best friend, her mistreatment by is perhaps the most subtle. She is sidelined by the narrative as the butt of the joke: for example, when Gabriel needs to get her pregnant, he makes faces and is disgusted by her body (newsflash, gay people can be misogynistic too!)

Kat (left) at the gay bar with her friends

Rather than their mistreatment by men (maybe I should say people assigned male at birth and perceived as such, but we’ll get into that), or even their entry into the Panti family, the thing that binds Joy, Chiqui and Kat together is, above all, their patience and grace. In their own ways, these three complex female characters all refuse to be spoken for. And rather than succumbing to victimhood and wallowing in self-pity (which would be completely understandable considering their various trauma), they rise above, and flourish.

Of course, so far we have only been talking about cis women.

“Bakla”, effeminacy, gender presentation and transness

Gabriel, Samuel and Daniel are referred to by everyone, including themselves, as “bakla”. Usually translated in the subtitles simply as “gay”, this word actually necessitates a lot more cultural context.

Biggest Gay Mood: playing volleyball in a breastplate

It is often the case that the rich cultural history of non-European nations allowed for much more acceptance of queer identities before colonisation ー “hirjas” in India, “muxe” in Zapotece communities of Southern Mexico and “waria” in Indonesia all serve to prove that a non-binary concept of gender is neither a new nor a Western invention. The Philippines, too, have historically recognised a third gender: “bakla”.

A bakla is a person who was assigned male at birth but has adopted feminine gender expression. Baklas are usually (though not always) attracted to men, but it is their effeminacy that defines them as baklas, not their sexuality. Thus, to translate “bakla” as “gay” does a disservice to the term’s complexities for a Western viewer.

Daniel with his partner

Pre-colonisation, many baklas were held in high regard in Filipino society, often performing the roles of spiritual leaders. Colonisation by Spain and later the USA brought in, via the Roman Catholic Church, most of the anti-LGBT discrimination we see in The Philippines today ー such as, indeed, that which is exhibited by Don Emilio towards his children in The Panti Sisters.

Britney Line Time: You try to read me ,/ you try to figure out. / You try to breathe me, / but you can’t blow me out

Though the three of them use the term bakla freely, it seems likely, especially by the end of the film, that Samuel is actually a trans woman: female-presenting when possible, he* wants the inheritance money to be able to afford SRS (Sex Reassignment Surgery). This equation of trans woman and bakla seems, from my research, to be false: a pervasive myth, it can actually be quite damaging.

*I have used male pronouns for Samuel throughout this review, as well as for Daniel and Gabriel, because those are the pronouns used in the film, and none of the characters ever seem to mind.

All of this is to say that, when talking about the mistreatment of women in The Panti Sisters, we have to talk about Samuel too. As the illegitimate child of Don Emilio, he and his mother are forced to sit on the other end of the (comically-large) table in the very first scene of family reunion. The two of them are repeatedly mocked by the rich side of the family, class and gender compounding a literal exclusion from the conversation; it is played off as humour, but Samuel’s mother cannot hear the discussion in the first scene because of how far away they are sitting.

Samuel and his mother separated from the family at dinner

Ultimately, all three siblings end up in economic trouble because being rejected by their families left them without a safety net, (this being, ironically, what drives them to pursue their dad’s inheritance in the first place); homophobia and rejection is ultimately the greatest equaliser.

Samuel and Gabriel

Gabriel and Daniel explore a more explicitly bakla identity. Though Gabriel is a drag queen by profession, he regularly wears makeup out of drag in his day-to-day life (even lashes). Sometimes, too, he gets in drag when he’s not got a show on ー the first scene being a prime example ー just because he can. It is revealed in a flashback that Daniel self-identifies as a “demi-girl”: basing his look on K-pop idols, he presents hyper-femme a lot of the time (though not exclusively), but does not experience dysphoria or a desire to transition.

Gabbi with her comically long train

Having seen my fair share of gay movies (hello, what’s the title?), I am not generally surprised by homophobia on-screen. What did surprise me in this film was the resilience of the characters against it: not only are you going to take that verbal abuse, you’re going to put on a full face of drag-calibre make-up with jeans and a T-shirt during the day, or wear a skirt, wig and tiny pink backpack just because you want to.

And there returns the heart behind the camp, the soul behind the stupid, the tears behind the laughter. Yes, the whole thing is really quite ridiculous, but perhaps that’s also what makes it so damn charming.

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