‘Easter Sunday’ review: a celebration of Filipino culture that can be appreciated by all

Jo Koy's latest film, inspired by the Filipino-American comedian's life and career, is a heart-warming ode to the migrant experience

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Despite the skill and charisma it takes to become a successful stand-up comedian, a transition from stage to screen is not always a smooth one.

Easter Sunday

Director: Jay Chandrasekhar
Stars: Jo Koy, Tia Carrere, Brandon Wardell, Lydia Gaston
Rating: 3.5/5

For examples, look no further than Chris Rock and his woeful 2001 comedy Down to Earth and Steve Martin and his early dud The Lonely Guy (1984).

This is less to do with talent and more to do with how the instinctive nature of stand-up comedy can be lost amid the tightly scripted and edited form of filmmaking.

While Jo Koy’s first cinematic outing, Easter Sunday, succumbs to some of these failings, it is ultimately rescued by a winning ensemble cast and a universal reverberance beyond its core audience.

With international tours and four Netflix specials, Koy’s profile may have risen over the past few years, but the Filipino-American, 51, has been carving out a career for more than three decades.

Despite growing acclaim and his move from clubs to arenas, Koy’s material has rarely strayed from its winning formula.

His shows are laced with anecdotes from his multicultural upbringing — Koy was born to an American father and Filipino mother and raised in a single-parent household by the latter — to provide some interesting observations on society today.

It’s not the most original shtick, but it is shrewd.

By channelling his Filipino roots, Koy has not only tapped into the sizeable diaspora in the US and abroad (including the UAE, where he performed to a packed Coca-Cola Arena in 2020), he has also given non-Kabayans an insight into the vibrant and spirited culture of a people whose traditions resonate in many parts of the world.

This was certainly the case when a mixed crowd, consisting of Filipinos, Arabs and a couple of Eritreans (me and my pal), shared knowing chuckles during a screening of Easter Sunday in Dubai at the weekend.

Directed by Jay Chandrasekhar (Super Troopers and The Dukes of Hazzard), the film follows the adventures of Koy — who doesn’t stretch himself creatively as a comedian called Joe Valencia — and multiracial son Junior (Brandon Wardell), as they travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco to celebrate Easter Sunday with the extended family.

Brandon Wardell, left, and Jo Koy play son and father in 'Easter Sunday'. AP

Valencia approaches the trip with trepidation.

His career is not only tanking but is responsible for tension with his son, who views him as an absent parent at best.

Then there is Valencia’s mother, Susan (Lydia Gaston), who is the epitome of tough love.

Throw in a couple of zany relatives, including criminally minded cousin Eugene (Eugene Cordero) and a smattering of aunties, plus an epic meal, and you have the recipe for a delightful family comedy with a lot of heart.

It's a pity screenwriters Ken Cheng and Kate Angelo occasionally stray from that approach by shoehorning in an unconvincing and tedious subplot involving a local gun-toting gang.

'Easter Sunday' features a winning ensemble cast. AP

It is when the action moves back into the family home that the movie sings, literally.

Karaoke sessions are used to settle feuds, while faith and food are used to gather people for some deep conversations and insights into the role of family and culture today.

This is best exemplified in the stormy relationship between Susan and his aunt Teresa (Tia Carrere), whose acerbic barbs throughout the film mask their central anguish of how to raise resilient migrant children away from home.

These are conversations I have heard, in various forms, in my own household, at everything from weekend meals to Ramadan iftars, as a child growing up in Australia.

Valencia’s mother, whose sternness is a ploy to instil resilience within her children, not only has shades of my own mother, but also the parents of many of the immigrant friends I grew up with.

It is this deft mix of proudly celebrating Filipino culture and being universal that makes Easter Sunday ultimately satisfying and heart-warming.

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Updated: August 09, 2022, 10:58 AM
Easter Sunday

Director: Jay Chandrasekhar
Stars: Jo Koy, Tia Carrere, Brandon Wardell, Lydia Gaston
Rating: 3.5/5