The 2021 slate for the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival (LAAPFF) features several Filipino American films during screenings September 23 – October 2. One such film is Lumpia With a Vengeance, the long-awaited follow-up to Patricio Ginelsa’s Lumpia. Set in the fictional city of Fogtown, the Filipino American community is threatened by a crime syndicate selling drugs disguised as food. Kuya, which is Tagalog for “big brother,” is the hero (Mark Muñoz) who uses lumpia, Filipino egg rolls, as his weapon to bring the criminals to justice. Joining him on the quest is Rachel (April Absinth), a high school student bent on saving the town and her parents’ wedding. The cast also includes Danny Trejo, Francis Custodio, and Edward Baon.
In addition to co-writing the screenplay, Ginelsa served as a director, producer, and co-editor on this live-action project. He joined me on a call to discuss Filipino food, how comics and music videos influenced his work, and getting to collaborate with his childhood friends.
What is your favorite filling for lumpia?
Whenever my mother-in-law asks, I always say pork with a little bit of vegetables just so I feel like I got some vegetables in. I’m a meat person. I don’t like it when it’s all veggies in there. The regular-sized lumpia is stuffed with vegetables and a little bit of meat. If you get the Shanghai version, the small ones, those are primarily meat.
If there’s a Filipino potluck with lumpia, what else do you expect to be there?
Of course, chicken adobo. The one dish that is underrated—it’s called chicken inasal and it’s kind of like a barbecued chicken.
How would you say your experience directing music videos helps you in general as a director?
Doing the music videos was very fun. We did that for a good 15 years with my partner A.J. Calomay. Even though music videos were really a commercial to sell songs for the artists, I used it as a way to enhance or develop my storytelling skills. I always considered lot of my music videos to be short films that happen to have music in them. A lot of the music videos people always remember are the ones I did with stories, like when we did The APL Song and Bebot for the Black Eyed Peas. Those were ways for me to tell a piece of Filipino American history.
One of our strengths, and I think it shows in Lumpia in a Vengeance, is that we use music a lot in our storytelling. Music plays a big part, whether it’s someone singing or just score. The score in Lumpia with a Vengeance is very retro. We were inspired by ’80s action films. There is even ’90s Fil-Am retro songs in there. Soundtrack and directing music videos played into that a lot.
Another element that is strong in the film is comic book imagery. Which comic books were influential to you?
I’m a hardcore nerd. I grew up with Marvel Comics before they were very popular; now everyone seems to be a Marvel fan. The comic book that really drew me was Spider-Man. I knew when I grew up as a kid, Spider-Man was iconic. When I actually read the comic books, the early Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, I was drawn into the story of Peter Parker. A lot of it was the human element—an awkward teenager trying to find a girlfriend and who was bullied. I was bullied in high school. I always grasped into those themes of the underdog. Spider-Man really inspired everything I created.
Mark Muñoz is a former UFC fighter. What did you enjoy about what he brought to your fight scenes?
Mark is Kuya. Before I even casted him, he was speaking at Octagon [for] his retirement fight. I remember watching it on YouTube. The way he carried it gracefully, you could see the elements of him as being heroic, very nice, and humble. I knew then that this guy had to be my Kuya. Once I got to know him, we realized we connected because we both had backgrounds of being bullied in high school. He brought a lot of that to the role, even though he doesn’t have lines. I think the way he owned it and crunched that lumpia was a different kind of humor. Even though he was replacing a role that was played by one of my friends in the original film, I think he made that role his own.
I think the toughest part for Mark was fighting and pulling punches. He was not used to pretending to fight. We always had to tell him, “Whoa, whoa, this is acting! Don’t do any of that stuff.”
What were the challenges with filming the sequel?
It’s the same challenges with any independent film. We were crowdfunded. We wanted to make sure we made a film that was worthy of their support. We were doing this part-time. It didn’t matter how long this was going to take. We wanted to make a film that was entertaining, funny, and [something] backers would be proud of. Having backers also motivated us to cross the finish line.
The other challenge was that it was kind of a grand experiment to have actors who are non-professional—my old childhood friends—working with icons like Danny Trejo. You never know if that’s going to work. You can tell who are non-actors and actors. I’m most proud of the fact that we were able to gather the community together and make something fun. In front of the camera and behind the camera, it was a mishmash of professionals and people learning and supporting. In that way, it was the weirdest, biggest community project to lead. I’m happy it’s finished and people are able to view it now.
I love that there’s a fight in the bakery. Where did you get the ideas for the fights in the eateries and restaurants?
Since it’s called Lumpia, the food element had to be there. I already knew the Bread Basket Bakery, my childhood bakery growing up. A lot of crafting the script was figuring out what resources you had and access to locations. We had a think tank of writers with me. We had a food fight element for the wedding part, but it became too big so we decided to do a bakery thing. The scene with the dough was one of the first things we thought of. Filipinos are known for boxing and [Manny] Pacquiao, so what if we had boxing gloves and they’re eating? It was a challenge, but our production designer and our prop designer made it happen. That was one of the first parts we shot first. We were so excited about the dough boxing gloves. Let’s start off with a bang!
Would you consider doing a Taquito Boy short or feature film with Danny Trejo?
I could only do it if Danny Trejo is involved. Luckily, we have a really good relationship with him. Are you kidding me? I’m never going to say no to working with Danny Trejo. We also do comic book spin-offs now. [Some Lumpia stories] can be films or comic books.
What was one of your favorite scenes to film?
It’s definitely the part where Danny Trejo—out of everyone in my neighborhood who I grew up with, the only actor that had a scene with Danny Trejo was Edward Baon, who plays Tyrone. I remember when they went mano-a-mano, and I had this pride and excitement. [We] started out [as] kids in a Daly City neighborhood shooting movies for fun in the summer. Now our sandbox has gotten so much bigger to include this Hollywood legend playing with us. The fact that Edward was there and he even [did] improv—he called Danny an old man—I was like, “What are you doing?”
I kept that in the movie. Danny was such a good sport. He just laughed at [Edward] and like the true professional that he was, he continued with the scene. That’s my favorite scene because of what it represented and Edward almost died in that scene for calling Danny an old man.
What do you like about what April brought to her role?
April carried the whole movie. Looking back, I don’t know how the movie would have ended up if April wasn’t part of it. The way she played it was the right tone. That role was really supposed to be a son, not a daughter. We flipped it and I redrafted the third act to build around her strength in acting.
I know there’s a lot going on with Mark Muñoz and Danny Trejo, but every time April shows up onscreen, it becomes a different movie. April has done so much for us, more than what was on paper, and I’m very appreciative of her.
What are you excited about as someone who is part of contemporary Filipino and Asian cinema?
I’m excited because there are other filmmakers who want to tell our story of our culture. When we first started, many colleagues who were Filipino weren’t necessarily making stories about us. Look at our film festival now, the LAAPFF, and a lot of films are Fil-Am, my good friends. Mallorie [Ortega] has a film. Randal [Kamradt], who worked on our movie, has a film here. I think it’s fun because these films will hopefully inspire other filmmakers out there who probably didn’t think about doing Filipino American movies and we can continue telling these stories.
Representation does matter. You don’t realize how important it is until this past year as you see the anti-Asian stuff. Now more than ever, it’s important to have stories representing us. Audiences are more open to watching it by buying tickets, or clicking on our streaming. The audience can only grow if there are filmmakers willing to make the films. I’m glad our movie is entering this new trend now. I feel more hopeful that there will be more movies about us.
For more information about LAAPFF, visit the festival’s website.