A few quick thoughts on my recent trip to Masbate



An Indian Devil in the Philippines

ഫിലിപ്പീൻസിലെ ഒരു ഇന്ത്യൻ പിശാചാണ്

EVERY year, thousands of foreign investors and entrepreneurs make their way to the Philippines to embark on new ventures. For some, the country is a promising market to which they can extend their successful businesses from home. For many others, the Philippines offers a chance for a fresh start.

Most foreign businessmen, especially those who fall into that latter category, appreciate the second chance, and work diligently to put their unsatisfactory pasts behind them. The Philippines is an easy place to forget one’s misery, whether a failed marriage, a failed business, financial problems, career burnout, a midlife crisis…. With only a few exceptions, the little nest egg one can bring from somewhere else goes a long way here, and if one simply cooperates with the environment and behaves with a little dignity, happiness and a comfortable measure of success is not hard to find. Most foreign businessmen figure this out fairly quickly, and become a credit to themselves, their families, and their communities.

And then there are guys like Manoj Paul.

His full name is Manoj Paul Chempalkunnil Jacob, and he hails from the Indian state of Kerala. An engineer by education, Paul has spent much of his working life – such as it is – in the recruitment business.

In 2004 Paul, who had recently returned to India from a job in Dubai, met a Mumbai girl named Grace, a successful manager with the Indian office of a well-known international bank. It was not, as Grace describes it now, necessarily a match made in heaven; but Paul was charming, generous with his own money, and seemed to be appropriately stable – within a month or so of their meeting, he departed for a lucrative new job in Qatar, and the couple carried on a long-distance relationship for a couple of years.

Unbeknownst to Grace, however, Paul’s exit from Dubai had not been as routine as he had made it out to be. In what could have been a sign of things to come, and for reasons that he has never explained, Paul was actually ejected from Dubai after being terminated from his job. In 2007 the couple were married in India, and Grace soon left her job to join her new husband in Qatar, where he had a job as a manager with one of the country’s commercial conglomerates. After a few months, her sterling reputation in the banking industry having preceded her, Grace herself returned to work, heading a corporate department of one of Qatar’s biggest banks.

Cracks in the façade

Things seemed to be going well until 2009, when Paul’s fortunes took a sudden turn for the worse. He was abruptly terminated from his job in Qatar; it was, he said, due to his employer’s discovery that he had taken some informal work on the side, which was a violation of his contract, but there were hints that he had engaged in some other wrongdoing as well. Because he was now unemployed, Paul’s Qatari visa was revoked, and he was given 30 days to leave the country.

Under the circumstances the development, albeit unexpected, was not a calamity as far as Grace was concerned. The couple had planned on working a few years in the Middle East and then returning to India; the loss of Paul’s job simply moved up the timetable. Paul, however, had different ideas. He wanted to start a recruitment business in the Philippines, he said; if Grace would stay at her job for a couple months longer she would collect a considerable amount of year-end compensation, which would be useful whether he pursued his Philippine idea or the pair simply returned to India. Grace, not believing the Philippine idea to be a serious plan, agreed to continue working for a few months while Paul laid low at home, having now overstayed the 30-day limit.

That lasted only a short time before Paul was snared by the Qatari authorities, who arrested him and put him in jail. Although Grace was able to pull some strings thanks to her position at the bank, it still took a week to extract Paul from custody, a period of time in which Grace found herself having to also deal with mounting financial problems her husband had caused: A large delinquent credit card bill and an equally overdue loan he had taken out in her name.

To say Grace’s faith in the man was shaken would be a gross understatement; she’d already sold her own home in Mumbai to finance the purchase of the couples marital home there, and now he was unemployed, jailed in a foreign country, and in debt. But no matter; she’d arrange for his release and do what she could to settle the financial liabilities, and they’d go home to Mumbai to collect themselves.

Within four days of their arrival in Mumbai, however, Paul announced that he would, in spite of Grace’s objections, pursue the Philippine business opportunity, and departed for Manila. Grace would soon discover that her husband’s unilateral decision cost her more dearly than she realized: Not only was she and her family being hounded by collectors for the delinquent loan Paul had taken (it would take almost five years to finally resolve it), he had put their home up for sale without her knowledge, and in the unkindest cut of all, had sold her collection of gold jewelry. In Indian culture, this jewelry is considered the wife’s personal movable wealth, and is known as her streedhan; a husband’s disposing of it without his wife’s blessing is at a minimum considered scandalous behavior, and more often than not, legally actionable.

Devils playground

Monaj Paul was not the least bit troubled by all this, and in fact was having quite a jolly time in the Philippines. Paul soon discovered that the Philippines doesn’t present much of a challenge to an amiable, persuasive foreigner, and in spite of having a dubious employment history and not being burdened with good looks, he was soon able to attract partners for his business venture and a young local plaything to warm his bed. She wore out her welcome fairly quickly, but rumor has it a payment of P15,000 convinced her to move out, to be replaced by a new kabit a little more to Paul’s liking, though his tastes never seemed to be particularly discerning or exclusive.

The second chance at success did not encourage Paul to take a more ethical approach to his work; if anything, he seemed to have honed the grifting skills he picked up in the Middle East. He was involved in the opening of several businesses; most of them recruiting agencies, but in reality mere paper corporations that were quickly folded once their funds were exhausted, and once Paul’s real personality became too much for his partners, many of them well-known businessmen, to tolerate. He was also a partner in a couple of other enterprises, of which two particular recruitment firms in Makati (which, having had enough headaches with the talented Mr. Paul, do not need to be named here) stand out.

In both firms, Paul was accused of embezzling money and pirating clients for what was either another planned new business, or his personal work on the side. Beyond acknowledging that he was terminated from both companies, neither firm will discuss details, or provide a formal explanation of why they didn’t file charges against him.

There are, however, some plausible reasons why not. First, even though Paul styles himself a “director” of the companies he’s invested in, serves in that sort of role in a practical sense, and identifies with his companies in informal ways (such as in his social media accounts), he is careful not to put his name on anything official; the same is true for the latest enterprise he is involved in, the New Manila-based Wideworld Workforce Solutions Inc. This makes building a legal case against him more difficult. Second, the firms involved are sensitive to their standing with the POEA. Even though being swindled in one way or another by Manoj Paul is not their fault, even having the problem might be enough to interfere with their POEA license, which would be disastrous; therefore, keeping it quiet, while not ideal, is probably less harmful. Finally, as one person familiar with one of the two firms observed, Paul’s persuasive manner gives him the ability to “talk his way out of almost anything.”

Things fall apart

Grace, who had joined her husband in Manila several months after his arrival here, was largely unaware of Paul’s illicit business and personal affairs. Returning to Manila from a visit to her home in India in 2014, however, she was suddenly faced with having to acknowledge her nagging suspicions about Paul’s activities in the crudest, most clichéd way possible: Discovering someone else’s lingerie in her home.

A verbal confrontation with Paul at his office over her discovery of his sexual affair so enraged him that the argument turned violent later at home. Fearing she had “information” about him (adultery is a criminal offense in India in similar fashion to the Philippines), he seized and smashed Grace’s cell phone and laptop and then attacked her, which resulted in a visit from the police.

Paul, ever the smooth talker, was able to dissuade the local authorities reluctant to deal with a domestic disturbance between a foreign couple from taking any further action, and the situation cooled down. There was no repeat of the physical abuse, and while it was obvious that the marriage was irretrievably broken, Paul resisted filing for the divorce (which would obviously have to be done in India) that Grace rightly felt he owed her. With matters unresolved, the pair carried on in a sort of limbo for a couple of years, maintaining peace between themselves by avoiding being in the same place at the same time so far as possible.

In January 2019, Paul decided, for reasons that would become apparent later, decided he no longer needed to keep up appearances. Grace was returning to Manila from a trip to India at the time. Arriving at their shared apartment in Greenhills, she and Paul briefly encountered each other; she went to bed, and he went out to do whatever it is he does in the evenings. Later that night, as Grace slept, Paul returned to the house and quietly removed his things, informing Grace the following that he would not be returning, after she called to ask what was happening.

Even though Paul had promised (via a follow up email) to provide her a monthly sum of 100,000 rupees (roughly P70,000) for her needs, Grace discovered that her new situation was not so much a case of her philandering, con artist husband leaving as it was the philandering, con artist husband throwing her out. In rapid succession, Paul informed Grace that he would no longer pay the rent for their Greenhills home, and that she must find her own, smaller place; informed her that he had removed her from the couple’s health insurance; blocked all contact with her by phone and online; and finally, after making two of his promised monthly payments, stopped sending any money at all, forcing Grace to live on her own savings.

The other woman

The intention, Grace assumed, was to force her to return to India where she would for all intents and purposes be unable to touch Paul here in the Philippines, even if she filed for divorce on her own. She soon found out why, when she was unexpectedly contacted by a 27-year-old Filipina named Mary Lazo Siazon, Paul’s new love interest – and the father, the young lady said, providing Grace with proof of the same, of her unborn child; or children, rather, as she was pregnant with twins. Paul had thrown away her birth control pills and declared that he wanted to start a family with Mary, who is 20 years his junior; he had already instructed Mary’s young son from another relationship to call him “Dad,” and had even gone so far as to attend the child’s awards day at his school.

At Mary’s request Grace met her in person and explained some of the difficulties her husband had put her through. She bore Mary no ill will, she assured her, and would just as soon see her and her new catch find happiness together; all she wanted was for Paul to make a proper end to their marriage and give her a fair settlement in order to move on.

Within a day or two, it became clear that Mary’s “reaching out” was part of a ploy to deflect Grace’s attention from Paul’s illicit relationship. Mary informed Grace that as a result of the disturbing information she had shared about her husband, she had asked Paul to leave. The pregnancy was no longer an issue anyway, she said; as a weird footnote, her first child’s father had been shot to death by motorcycle-riding gunmen, and the stress of the news had caused her to have a miscarriage.

At this point, Grace had had enough. Her own efforts to get Paul to do the right thing had been fruitless, and soliciting intervention from the Indian Embassy to get him to cooperate were futile as well, despite her case being endorsed to the embassy by one of the biggest women’s welfare NGOs in India. Frustrated, she sought the advice of some local friends, who suggested she talk to the Philippine police about whether Paul could be charged under local law for having abandoned her.

It turned out that he could, although the police at first attempted to simply moderate the dispute. The Children and Women’s Protection Desk of the PNP District where Paul’s last known business, Wideworld Manpower Solutions, is located contacted Paul by phone and informed him he could be charged under RA 9262 (the “Anti-Violence Against Women and Their Children Act of 2004”) if he did not support his spouse as he had promised to do. Paul dismissed the warning. “Fine, let her go file a case then,” he said, much to the annoyance of the police, who urged Grace to do precisely that. Later that afternoon, the case was filed in Mandaluyong, the last place the couple lived.

Not wearing it as well as he thinks he is (Manoj & Mary on holiday in Thailand, from his Viber profile).

As things stand now, that case is ongoing; Paul has so far ignored one subpoena to a preliminary hearing, despite clearly being aware of the case – since it was filed, both he and Mary have openly flaunted their relationship on Facebook, apparently believing that his talent for bullshit and her family connections (she counts a couple of well-placed government officials among her relatives) will overcome the pathetic complaints of a lonely, embittered housewife who should accept being discarded with a little aplomb and just piss off back to India where she belongs.

That will probably happen eventually, Grace says, but not before justice for herself and at least indirectly, for the business partners Manoj Paul has cheated here is done. Now the public mockery from the Manoj and Mary couple will likely include criminal charges of adultery/concubinage against the two of them, in spite of Grace’s initial feminine inclination to avoid hurting a woman who had originally appeared to be another of his victims; the May-September couple’s somewhat icky daily public celebration of their affair in social media posts makes the case hard to ignore.

For the vast majority of other expats making their way in the Philippines, guys like Manoj Paul are an insult that breeds suspicion of all foreign residents, and ought to be firmly put in their place – in an airplane seat back to their home countries, after paying whatever penalty due to the people they’ve harmed here.

How not to be a Hack, Lesson 2: You are not a stenographer

HERE is an example of an infuriatingly common problem with the way modern-day journalism is practiced, an item that caught my attention because it looked like a good topic for my Sunday column this week:

“SENATE Minority Leader Franklin Drilon on Wednesday warned that at least 1,200 companies were poised to leave while a “good number” of investors were having second thoughts because of the government’s plan to remove tax perks under a second package of tax reforms.”

Just to put the topic in a little context, the tax reform package being debated in the Senate would reduce corporate income taxes, but also “rationalize” fiscal incentives by removing many of them and gathering administration of the rest under a single agency. The controversial measure has pitted the government, which feels that the current incentive regime is uncompetitive and is being taken advantage of by companies that don’t really need tax perks, against the business community, which of course doesn’t want to lose them. Drilon, a bloated plutocrat since birth, is evidently siding with business on this one.

The common mistake made here is confusing notoriety with credibility. In a general sense, yes, what Frank Drilon says is newsworthy, particularly when he says it during Senate floor proceedings, which are a matter of public record. Drilon is a senior elected official, so presumably the public has an interest in what he says in the course of discharging his office.

His position, however, only entitles him to be listened to; it does not automatically confer competence and authority over whatever subject matter is at hand. At no point in Drilon’s remarks did he provide any evidence to back the specific numbers in his assertions: 1,200 companies that would leave the Philippines, and 150,000 workers who would lose their jobs. One could hope that he had some factual basis for his claim, but for all anyone knows, Drilon could have figuratively pulled those numbers from his prodigious ass.

Simply reporting what Sen. Drilon said results in a maddeningly incomplete story, and worse still, a story that gives an impression of fact, even if that it is not its intent. As the story is presented, the news item is that “1,200 businesses will close and 150,000 workers will become unemployed if the tax reform package is passed without at least being significantly amended,” and the primary source is Frank Drilon. Based on his position alone, however, Drilon is only credible as a primary source for news about the Senate; absent any explanation of where he got the information he is sharing, he is simply offering an opinion.

The obvious reaction on the part of the reporter should be to challenge Drilon as to the source of his information. If that is not possible, or no explanation is offered, there are three ways this story could be approached that would make it credible:

Good – Clarify that the news item was merely a statement by Drilon, and that he offered no evidence to support his assertion. In this case, the story is no longer “what Drilon said,” but rather “Drilon said something.” This story will not be of any actual use to readers, but it will at least be technically correct and neutral.

Better – Report the unsupported statement by Drilon, then seek a viewpoint from the opposite side (in this case, the Department of Finance or the Department of Budget and Management). The readers can then draw their own conclusions as to whether the pro or con point of view is more credible.

Best – Report Drilon’s statement; a counterpoint by a proponent of the tax reform plan; and an analytical viewpoint from a third-party, recognized subject matter expert, who may support one or the other views or offer a completely different one. This presents readers with a reasonably well-rounded overview of the entire topic, and allows them to form informed opinions about it.

Simply repeating what an official says without context or corroboration is not reporting a story, it’s taking dictation. Build your skills and credibility by learning to question more.

Inclusive Business in the Philippines – The Manila Times, Dec. 2, 2018

Getting serious about inclusive business – My Manila Times column for Sunday, December 2.

LAST week, I attended the “Inclusive Business Leaders’ Conference” hosted by the Department of Trade & Industry-Board of Investments and the private-sector group Philippine Business for Social Progress (PBSP), held in the fortress-like refrigerator known as the Philippine International Convention Center (Seriously, they need to dial the AC back a bit. It’s freezing in there.). Inclusive business (IB), when it is taken seriously, is an attractive concept because it offers much broader and more sustainable benefits than purely social safety nets.

Although the idea is not exactly new, it has only existed as a formal part of the UN Development Program’s anti-poverty playbook for about four years, which is why awareness of IB among businesses and the public is still rather low, and the government’s strategy is still at what would be considered a pilot stage. There are still some significant gaps to be filled, and the effort needs to be expanded far beyond its relatively narrow current focus (agriculture, and to a lesser extent, tourism) for it to have substantial results. The most obvious subtexts in the various presentations were that financial inclusion and access to credit is still a major stumbling block, along with physical access to markets, and reducing red tape and maintaining consistent regulation and governance.

Still, the initiative is encouraging, and generally seems to be on the right track despite those nagging issues. Hopefully, the government and private sector stakeholders who have started all this will be able to maintain their momentum.


The Wages of Arrogance, Paid in Full

IT seems somehow unfair that a tribe who are considered the most isolated people on Earth were the subject of international attention this week, but that is exactly what happened to the Sentinelese after they reacted predictably to a trespasser on their remote Indian Ocean island.

The Sentinelese live on North Sentinel Island, an outlier of the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal, and are considered the last pre-Neolithic people on Earth, direct descendants of the first people in Asia who migrated from Africa about 75,000 years ago. Nobody knows how long the Sentinelese have been there; some anthropologists have estimated the tribe may be between 15,000 and 30,000 years old.

In fact, nobody knows much about the Sentinelese at all. Written descriptions of the tribe date back to at least the 14th century but are vague at best, and an attempt by the British colonial government to establish contact in the late 1800s ended in disaster. For a period of about 15 years beginning in the late 1970s there were intermittent attempts by scientists to observe the Sentinelese up close, but these were unsuccessful; until this week, the last report of any substance about the islanders came from the Indian Coast Guard, which attempted to survey the island by air in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

The reason why nobody knows much about the Sentinelese is because the Sentinelese have made it abundantly clear at every encounter with someone from the outside world that they want absolutely nothing to do with them. Anyone who has ever dared to venture onto or even within shouting distance of North Sentinel Island has been met with a savage response. The Indian Coast Guard helicopter sent to ascertain the condition of the tribe after the 2004 tsunami was famously greeted with a hail of arrows from the Sentinelese (the picture at the beginning of this article is a still from a short video the crew managed to shoot as they were fleeing the area); in the official report of the mission, the helicopter pilot noted drily that the tribe was evidently “fighting fit” despite the disaster.

In 2006, two fishermen poaching in the waters near North Sentinel Island ran aground and were hacked to death by the tribe, leading the Indian government to declare the island off-limits; by law, no one is allowed to approach within three nautical miles of North Sentinel Island. The Indian Navy and Coast Guard mount regular patrols to keep trespassers away, and even avoid violating the cordon themselves except in emergencies. The reason for the prohibition is to protect both would-be visitors and the Sentinelese from almost certain death; because of their isolation, it is presumed the tribespeople do not have immunity to most common diseases – even something as mundane to us as a cold virus could very well completely wipe them out.

Pest Removal, Sentinelese-style

To John Allen Chau, a 26-year-old, self-professed evangelical Christian missionary and adventurer, this unique little society needed to be “brought into the kingdom of Jesus.” And so with full knowledge of the ban on approaching North Sentinel Island – in his diary he opined that “God was hiding him” from the Indian patrols – he hired some fishermen to take him just off the shore of North Sentinel Island, and set off in a canoe to bring the heathens the gifts of a soccer ball, scissors, safety pins, some fish, and the Word of the Lord.

The news reports about what actually happened have varied, but it seems Chau made two attempts. The first, on November 16, resulted in the Sentinelese breaking his canoe, and forcing him to swim to safety back to the fishing boat sans gifts but sporting a couple of brand-new arrow wounds, including one through the Bible he was carrying. His second attempt the following day was his last; the fishermen observing from offshore reported seeing some tribesmen dragging Chau’s body along the beach and then burying it. The fishermen then returned to Port Blair, the administrative capital and largest town of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, to break the news to Chau’s waiting friends that the Sentinelese had been no more interested in joining the kingdom of Jesus than they had been those of modern India, Emperor Hirohito, Queen Victoria, or the various Indian maharajahs, South Asian sultans, or Chinese emperors who have come and gone over the centuries.

In the aftermath of Chau’s death, Indian authorities arrested seven persons in connection with violation of the ban on the island – five fishermen, and two friends of Chau, according to various news reports. The authorities also registered a case of murder against “unknown persons,” but later explained that doing so was mainly a matter of keeping paperwork in order so that Chau’s cause of death could be accurately recorded, and that they had no intention of bothering the islanders about it. As of now, at the behest of the US consul, Indian officials and researchers are studying whether it would be feasible to try to recover Chau’s body; the tone of official comments on the matter, however, suggests that they probably won’t.

No Sympathy

What has been interesting to watch as the story has cycled through the media this week is the differences in the angle taken by the US and global media, and the universally harsh reaction of readers to it.

Foreign media, for the most part, has focused on the Sentinelese and their protected status; this headline from The Irish Times is a typical example:

American media, on the other hand, has focused on the young adventurist, and made his religious conviction an extenuating circumstance to his having willfully violated the law of a foreign country, as this headline from CBS News suggests:

The public is having none of that; while a sympathizer with the man’s self-ordained cause is occasionally seen, reactions have been overwhelmingly damning:

And well the reactions ought to be damning, because John Allen Chau’s ill-conceived “mission” perfectly exemplified the arrogant, exploitative exceptionalism of evangelical Christian culture. A graduate of Oral Roberts University (founded by a real-life Elmer Gantry who once famously extorted $8 million out of his followers by claiming that God told him He “would call him home” if they didn’t cough up the money), Chau was evidently sincere in his belief that anyone not living according to the precepts of the modern white American interpretation of Pauline dogma is evil and needs to be corrected – in one of his diary entries, he referred to the North Sentinel Island society as “a last stronghold of Satan.”

His “sincere belief” is being used to somehow excuse, if not exactly justify, his destructive and self-serving objectives. It is clear he was aware that he was violating the law, beginning with entering India on a simple tourist visa – which explicitly prohibits proselytizing – with the intention of carrying out missionary activities. His diary indicates that he was clearly aware that his mission was illegal under Indian law, and that he made a plan before setting out to evade detection and arrest. And of course, he was obviously aware of the fatal risk of approaching the Sentinelese. If he was aware that his having contact with them might also be fatal to them, that too was not enough to dissuade him.

The Sentinelese are one of Earth’s rarest cultural treasures, a unique and exceedingly fragile living link with our own species’ ancient past. They have maintained an unaltered way of life since perhaps 300 centuries before the earliest tenuous seeds of Abrahamic religion even sprouted.

Yet John Allen Chau sought to destroy all this and remake it according to his own naïve and narrow conception because of his “beliefs,” which was not only a display of willful disrespect towards the Sentinelese people, but an aggressive attempt to rob humanity in general of an artifact of our collective heritage. His actions, and the dogmatic principles driving them, were no less horrifying and damnable than the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, or ISIS’ destruction of Nimrud and Palmyra.

The only difference is, this time, the monument fought back. And for the time being at least, the world is probably just a little better place because it did.

Bong Go highlights his senatorial qualifications by presenting a superfluous idea

MANY Filipino voters have wondered if former Special Assistant to the President Christopher “Bong” Go is truly qualified for the Senate seat he has been actively campaigning for since the instant his former boss invented a taxpayer-funded executive position for him out of thin air more than two years ago. Go, however, put any misgivings to rest this week by floating just the sort of uselessly irrelevant policy idea the Philippine Senate is famous for, thereby demonstrating that, if elected, he’ll fit right in to that august body.

Go’s proposal, one that he would presumably pursue if elected to the Senate, is the creation of a “Department of OFW Concerns,” that would serve as a “one-stop shop that will provide government services to cater to the needs of our modern-day heroes,” he explained. Go made the proposal in a media exposure exercise with a number of overseas workers recently rescued (by one of the two existing agencies that exclusively handles OFW concerns) from Kuwait, where they had been enslaved in three massage parlors.

With his proposal, Go, whose only job since 1998 has been to serve as an executive assistant (what we would describe in the part of the world I come from as a “toby”) to then-Mayor and now-President Rodrigo Duterte, demonstrated that he is every inch the qualified Filipino politician on every count, and probably should expect a landslide victory as a result:

  • Suggesting that the proper way to correct any inefficiencies or lack of performance in existing agencies is to ignore those problems, and instead invent a completely new layer of bureaucracy;
  • Using the magic words, “One-stop shop,” which automatically improves government services, even if a patron of an agency so designated has to visit eight different counters, make four different fee payments, and complete 47 process steps within the premises;
  • Unironically referring to OFWs as “modern day heroes” without showing any awareness that it has been decades of half-assed government reliance on labor export that has propped up the Philippine economy, rather than any substantial economic growth policy;
  • Shamelessly exploiting some private citizens’ personal tragedy as a campaign event; and
  • Using a case in which the instruments of government functioned properly and exactly as they were designed to do as an example of “what’s wrong with the system.”

This guy matches the Senator archetype so well someone should check to make sure he isn’t actually an AI program. For the kind of government the Philippines seems to prefer, it would actually be better if he is – that way, they could launch 11 more copies of him, and fill out the entire reelection slate at one go.



Pop Cinema

The Freddie Mercury/Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody may be a sanitized, Cliff’s Notes version of the history of one of rock-and-roll’s giants, but it largely deserves the massive positive reception it has gotten.

THERE are two ways one could look at the sentimental screen biography of Queen and the band’s flamboyant frontman Freddie Mercury: One can either nitpick it to death for its historical inaccuracies and relative lack of depth; or one can accept it for it was obviously intended to be, the warm and somewhat self-congratulatory memories of the surviving band members brought to life for the purpose of introducing one of music’s most remarkable and successful acts to the two generations born since Queen was a current thing.

Given that the movie, which was only released at the end of last month after eight years of on-again, off-again production has as of this writing grossed about six times its production cost and is now the best-selling musical biopic of all time, whatever flaws it may have are evidently not holding it back, and should probably be overlooked.

Bohemian Rhapsody, which takes its title from Queen’s epic 1975 hit single, follows the life of Freddie Mercury (played in outstanding fashion by Rami Malek) from his joining original band members guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) in 1970 (bassist John Deacon, played by Joseph Mazzello, joins the band at the same time as Mercury) to the band’s immortal performance at the 1985 Live Aid event in London’s Wembley Stadium.

Mercury is portrayed as an astonishing, driven talent, but a troubled man struggling with his own identity and loneliness. His story in the film follows a sort of redemption arc, but one that isn’t necessarily judgmental; Mercury comes across as a dreamer who is led astray by his own weaknesses – his well-known homosexuality chief among them, although it is dealt with in strictly PG-13 fashion – and people taking advantage of him, learns a bit of humility, and triumphs in the end with a performance of a lifetime, which earns him the acclaim for who he really is that he has been seeking all along.

That’s not really how the story went in real life, of course, but condensing 15 years of the life of complex personality and the career of an extremely talented, innovative band into a two-hour movie is a difficult job, and Bohemian Rhapsody does it fairly well for the audience it seems to be aimed at. For the benefit of those for whom this movie is likely their first introduction to the phenomenon that was Queen and its memorable lead singer, the film does a faithful enough job of basically explaining who they were. For those of us who grew up with Queen on vinyl, Rolling Stone and Spin magazine under the bed or shoved in our school lockers, and MTV when it still played music, the film may seem like it is following a script made up entirely of bullet points; all the elements of what made Queen what they were are there, but presented in a rather shallow and not entirely true-to-life way, leaving us to fill in the details from our own memories.

But Bohemian Rhapsody is good enough that doing just that is rather enjoyable; I came away from it feeling nostalgic (I graduated high school in the spring of 1985, just a couple months before Live Aid), and happy to have seen it. My only real complaint is that very few whole songs found their way into the film; I’ve always been a fan of Queen’s music, and so many clipped versions of their hits left me feeling a little cheated. But that is a relatively small matter, and not something that should keep anyone from watching and enjoying the movie.