Critics give movie based in Colma thumbs-up

While it may not cause the residents of the many cemeteries for which this town is famous to rise up singing, “Colma: The Musical” has brought new life to the town, with an award-winning, feature-length production.

The musical tribute by two Peninsula natives features three best friends, Rodel, Billy and Maribel, coming to grips with young adulthood after high school.

While the San Francisco suburb with an estimated population of 1,280 is in the title, Colma itself is “just representative of any little sleepy town that sits next to a big city and has some trivial claim to fame that helps identify it,” director Richard Wong said.

“Hopefully, people can watch the film and relate Colma to their home town,” Wong said. “Colma itself is a character in the film, with its constant fog and cemeteries and houses, but its purpose is to feel familiar.”

The script was an outgrowth of a birthday present. Wong and Westmoor High School graduate H.P. Mendoza, College of San Mateo dropouts with a love of musicals, had reunited as friends in May 2005, when Mendoza played Wong part of a concept album, “Colma: The Musical,” he had written for a birthday present.

Mendoza’s musical influences include Ben Folds and They Might Be Giants, Wong said, with a major influence to the film being “West Side Story.”

Fresh from Los Angeles and burned-out on working in television, Wong remembered wondering aloud how much it would cost to make it a movie.

“The second I asked that question it hit me like lightning that making a movie is what I should do next,” the graduate of San Francisco’s Washington High said.

Mendoza wrote an original script in seven days, and they spent the next month hashing out themes, characters and scenes.

A year ago, they spent 18 days shooting the movie in Colma, and the result is a film that local critics have swooned over.

“Colma: The Musical” has won two Special Jury Prizes from the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival and the VC Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival so far.

It heads next to the Vancouver International Film Festival.

“I hope people take away from the film some sense of youth and hope,” Wong said. “Many people have said that it felt very real to them and it hit them in a way that related to their own experiences.”

dsmith@examiner.com

For more information about “Colma: The Musical,” check out www.colmafilm.com.

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