Berlin Hidden Gem: 'Death of Nintendo' Depicts Coming-of-Age Tale From the Philippines

Berlin International Film Festival
A group of boys grapple with sex, video games and, eventually, circumcision over an Easter holiday in the Philippines.

Director Raya Martin's film mixes '90s nostalgia with plenty of earthy humor for a look at "the pain that one has to endure in order to become a man."

Filipino director Raya Martin was caught out, for a moment, when first pitching the project that would eventually become his latest feature, Death of Nintendo. Then he decided to simply tell it like it is.

"This film is Stand by Me … with circumcision," Martin remembers saying, referencing Rob Reiner’s 1986 classic.

"I was unsure at first how best to describe what we were trying to do," he explains. "Then I realized the truth always works best."

Making its world premiere as part of Berlin's Generation Kplus program, the Philippines-U.S. co-production is a coming-of-age story that charts a course through universal themes but comes with distinct and intriguing Philippine flavors. Set in the 1990s, it follows four teenage friends during an Easter holiday flush with awakening sexuality and doses of earthy humor.

While the kids are focused on familiar obsessions — video games, sex, even ghosts — the filmmakers surround them with specific insights into life Philippines-style, including re-created scenes of the public flagellation ceremonies that accompany Easter across the predominantly Catholic nation each year, as well as the traditions of tuli, or circumcision, for boys just prior to the full onset of puberty.

"I loved what Stand by Me did with mixing genres," explains writer-producer Valerie Martinez. "The murder element gave it so much more mystery and a dark, alluring quality that subverts you from the real underlying issues of growing up."

Stand by Me's all-American milieu would have to go, "although stylistically and structurally, this was a nod to that film," Martinez says. "I still had to define a uniquely Filipino experience, which combines the remnants of our heritage and ethnic traditions from the East and the West, our repeated history of being colonized, our deep ties to religion and family and our relationship to our volatile atmosphere."

Philippine powerhouse ABS-CBN Films was impressed enough by Martin's pitch to throw its support behind the project through its Black Sheep independent arm, while the film has already been picked up by Gersh for U.S. sales.

Producer Martinez, for one, believes the film's faithfully re-created details will resonate back home — and hopefully beyond.

"Just being a Generation Y kid in general, I think this film speaks to us," she says. "We loved playing in the dirt as much as we loved video games and waiting on that dial-up to connect online. We held on to our traditional values and ideals while still embracing modernity."

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Feb. 20 daily issue at the Berlin Film Festival.