A Day in the Life of Two Lovers (That’s All That Matters)
Director: Joselito Altarejos
Writers: Joselito Altarejos, Zig Madamba Dulay
Stars: Arnold Reyes, Oliver Aquino, Rita Avila
For the past couple of years that I’ve been attending Cinemalaya, I’ve usually steered clear of Director’s Showcase entries. The primary reasons for this are: money doesn’t grow on trees, time is gold, and I’d really rather see what brilliant new filmmakers have to offer. Another thing, some veteran directors who join the festival have their roots deep into mainstream cinema, and it so happens that bad (mainstream) habits die hard.
But this year, a refreshing film took the spotlight. Joselito Altarejos’ ”Kasal” won Best Film, beating even the most sought-after entry ”Hustisya.” Of course, stories about same-sex relationships have graced the indie silver screen for years — of which I haven’t seen many. But of those I’ve seen (local or foreign), “Kasal” is probably the most realistic and relatable representation of same-sex relationships. The characters and their chemistry are so genuine that you know the film isn’t just talking about gender. It’s truly, simply about two people in love, struggling with the universal difficulties of love.
"Kasal" gives its audience a rare, intimate view into the everyday life of a same sex couple — complete with the mundanity, the sizzlingly detailed sex, and the emotional nuances that pretty much every other romantic relationship has. It doesn’t just linger on the challenge of being homosexual in a conservative society but also delves deeper into the struggles within the relationship. Instead of highlighting the difficulties unique to same-sex relationships, the film focuses on what makes them just like others.
An interesting point about “Kasal,” especially as a Director’s Showcase entry, is that it oozes with everything indie. In a category reserved for well-known directors with mainstream techniques, “Kasal” stands out as a truly independent film, treatment-wise. It looks like a relatively small production. Many of the scenes seem to be shot in convenient locations, primarily indoors. Tight cinematography take us right into the comfort zones of the characters, showing us how they are at home, at work, with friends, and with family. And with the exhaustive, continuous, and uncut sex scene that runs for probably at least 5 minutes, “Kasal” is as intimate as it gets.
Of all the film’s honesty, what truly stands out are the two parallel scenes shot from behind a window: the opening scene taken from the condominium balcony, and the scene with the lovers engaged in a heartbreaking fight on an empty street, as seen - but not heard - from inside the car. These two scenes noticeably put a distance between the characters and the camera. Somehow, the audience is suddenly cast aside to the role of an outsider. But at the same time, from this distance, we are able to see the gap between the two lovers, no matter how entwined together they are. It’s no longer the actors’ faces that speak to us, but the space of uncertainty surrounding them, and which threatens to drive a wedge between the two souls painfully clinging to each other.
In a genre that represents a group largely treated as a minority, “Kasal” is incredibly inclusive. It portrays the problems that lack of communication can cause in relationships — homosexual or otherwise — and even touches on familial conflicts. The natural acting — Arnold Reyes and Oliver Aquino delivered some of the most convincing performances I’ve seen in recent years — and the ordinariness of the scenarios make the film easy to relate to. The conversations also seem spontaneous. As in real life, it’s in the slight changes in tone and the sudden moments of silence that we see how easily we tend to sweep things under the rug, and at the same time, how hard it is for us to actually forget.
First World Problems in a Third-World Country
Director: Gino M. Santos
Writer: Jeff Stelton
Stars: Elmo Magalona, Coleen Garcia, Sophie Albert, Kit Thompson, Slater Young, Chynna Ortaleza
Generation Y, the youth of the millennium. Born and raised in a fast-paced world at a time where old and new challenges converge. Drugs, sex, and alcohol are hyped up even more by a web-centric culture — one that values fame, vanity, and materialism. This kind of life is captured by the youth-oriented “#Y,” a welcome respite from the heavy, socio-political films that have characterized independent Filipino cinema. But while the film simply illustrates the Millennial lifestyle and presents the “First World” problems that this privileged, 21st-century Filipino subculture faces, “#Y” also hints on bigger underlying difficulties, particularly depression.
“#Y” begins with the apparent suicide of Miles (Elmo Magalona), a college student from an affluent family. Life flashing before his eyes, Miles traces back his peculiar relationship with death. He believes he first became fascinated with the idea of death as a boy when a grandparent died. How this fascination drove him to attempt suicide a few weeks ago, Miles doesn’t really know. But after the incident, he starts getting a better picture of what kind of life it is that he chose to give up on.
After his first suicide attempt, Miles becomes diagnosed with depression “with bipolar and schizophrenic tendencies.” The news about him being “crazy” spread like wildfire, thanks to social media. He tries to get back to his life and live like nothing happened. This is easy in the company of his friends who, like him, seem to have forgotten about his recent suicidal state. They carry on, taking their regular dose of drugs, alcohol, partying, and sex. But before they know it, their self-destructive behaviour takes its toll. Scandals break out, relationships are destroyed, and death comes knocking on their doors. Eventually, Miles seeks help from a suicide hotline operator Abby (Chynna Ortaleza) who seems to be the only one to really pay attention. In their midnight musings and conversations, Miles comes face to face with the ‘why’ (pun probably intended?) — why he wanted to die — and the answer that will decide his fate.
“#Y” may not be everyone’s cup of tea. It portrays a specific crowd: wealthy college students who can afford lavish Western lifestyles and have their parents off of their backs. Thus, the film can somehow lose its personal significance to other types of viewers. Nevertheless, it manages to give itself some social relevance with a plot point that obviously alludes to the Napoles scandal, showing that even these ‘rich kids’ get affected by national issues. However, the film primarily focuses on the characters’ personal conflicts and personality flaws. It touches themes such as family dysfunction, financial insecurity, sexual frustration, religion, and most of all, depression.
However, perhaps in its attempt to pack on as many conflicts as possible, “#Y” falls short in showing their magnitude. It seems to only breeze through these problems, and we never really see how deeply affected the characters are. “#Y” looks more like a mere presentation, a preview of what it’s like to be an upper-class Millennial. While it tries to say that this generation is overwhelmed with the ubiquity of social issues, it doesn’t convincingly show us that these characters are truly troubled. Thus, it’s hard to empathize with the characters — even Miles who isn’t even believably depressed.
While I would like to applaud the filmmakers for bringing up depression, it seems to me that depression was not used effectively as a narrative device. It was used more like a hook, to lead the viewers on with curiosity. Suicide is an important and sensitive topic, so it’s necessary to treat it more than a catchphrase. More than anything, it has to build the character. Interestingly, it can also be a character. But while Miles clearly states that he has thought of death a lot of times, we don’t see him struggle with depression. Miles doesn’t even necessarily have to look depressed, but we have to see that he is indeed carrying a burden. It’s only right to explore the significance of depression in the story, especially since Miles has been diagnosed with the disorder. Despite his breakdown, his dangerous attraction to scissors, his narrations, and his hallucinations, we don’t really get to see him in a genuine state of depression. We are not given insight to his soul. The ending does somehow shed some light into Miles’s emptiness, as the voiceover summarises the story rather bluntly. But without the narration and the twist (which probably didn’t take everyone by surprise), “#Y” would’ve had loose ends.
Gino M. Santos deserves some recognition for trying to reach out to an audience that is not commonly represented in the Filipino film industry, and more importantly, for trying to talk about depression. But his attempt rather stays as it is: an attempt. Simply put, “#Y” gives genuine laughter and a memorable quote or two. But as a film that could have examined this generation’s psyche, it appears somewhat gimmicky. It’s bold because the characters’ lifestyles are bold, but it doesn’t turn the characters inside out. Finally, as a film that could have opened a discussion about depression, it lacked the power to move. It’s disappointing because depression can tell so much about the human condition, especially of this generation, but it remains in the sidelines, seemingly forgotten.
Drawn Like a Moth to a Flame
Director: Giancarlo Abrahan V
Writer: Giancarlo Abrahan V
Starring: Eula Valdez, Nonie Buencamino, Martin del Rosario
One could say that life is a candle and love is a flame. In youth, our light is bright. We burn strong with vigor and we love fervently. And when we love, our light shines twice as bright as two flames unite. But time passes by and the wick grows short. Sometimes, our flame flickers and the darkness slowly consumes us, putting a widening void between us and the ones we love. We start to feel alone, and in our fear of loneliness, wouldn’t we long for someone to ignite us once again?
In “Dagitab”, we see how this gnawing unhappiness can push two people apart as they both search for what can bring sparks back into their lives. After twenty years of marriage, Jimmy (Nonie Buencamino) and Issey Tolentino (Eula Valdez), both professors from the University of the Philippines, start to feel the distance growing between them. They remain a functional, affectionate couple, but they are slowly sinking into the lifelessness of their marriage. Perhaps it’s their tamed lifestyle lacking any adventure or the belief that they’ve “dropped out of life” that causes the strain in their relationship. Or maybe, it’s the unresolved frustrations and unfulfilled desires. Either way, they are both growing inward, consumed in their own loneliness and unmindful of the suffering of the other. So alone, they search for what can bring back their own happiness. Jimmy journeys off to the mountains for his lifetime research, in pursuit of a legend that may or may not be real. But in truth, he is tracing his footsteps back to the past. In the process, he opens up old wounds. Meanwhile, Issey, tired of putting her brain before her heart, finds rejuvenation in the arms of a young student Gab Atienza (Martin del Rosario). As one is obsessed with an old love and the other loses herself in a new one, they both try their hands at a life that could be (or could’ve been) theirs — one that is uninhibited and un-conscientious, a life without each other.
The film unfolds like a novel and every now and then, I feel like I am reading a book. With a 2-hour runtime, it takes its time to fully explore the characters’ emotions. The narrative is reasonably paced and never dragging but it maximizes the lonely sceneries and the long, deep conversations. “Dagitab” is effectively atmospheric. Its wonderful cinematography draws emotions of regrets, nostalgia, and desolation. It isn’t shy in using symbolisms and visual metaphors. The very first scene shows the face of a buried woman, her skin soft and white but covered with slithering worms. The story also introduces a supernatural element from the beginning, as Jimmy reveals that he is studying the legend of an “engkanto” (a nymph/deity) named Bulan. This may arguably be an unnecessary subplot but it is smoothly woven into the narrative and gives the film a transcendental, uniquely Filipino quality. But obviously, the film’s motif is fire. The element makes its appearance in different forms: from the sudden spark of a lighter, to the slow burning of coal, to a grand display of fireworks, to the dying ember of a cigarette, and finally, to the silent but surprising and beautiful glowing of the fireflies. These images mark the emotional changes the characters go through, reflecting the thoughts they protectively keep to themselves and from themselves.
“Dagitab” explores the complexities of relationships, poetically scrutinizing the different shades of loving and longing. Their gradations can be seen best in the breathtakingly captured and melancholic beach scene: Issey and Gab lying side by side on the sand as the waves of the sea hit the shore one after the other. Gab’s voice narrates his essay in the background, “she was somewhere between family and stranger.” This moment, which brings them so close together, somehow primarily depends on them being so far apart. While they had to “meet halfway” in a kind of love that “dances between rainfall and summer,” their tangential relationship is overshadowed by a greater void. For after the sun has set, a blazing, impassioned spark can only keep the darkness at bay for so long.
Undeniably, the low-key acting is one of the finest points of the film. Seldom is pain and sadness portrayed with such restraint but compellingly. Nonie Buencamino and Eula Valdez convincingly portray a ‘normal’ marriage while still displaying their characters’ loneliness in their general lack of vigor, their fearfulness, and in the fleeting quality of their moments of happiness. They give life to two realistic but rarely seen characters in Philippine cinema — intelligent individuals who are rather articulate in expressing themselves to each other but are not quite in touch with their own fears and reservations. They make the story relatable and genuine by depicting a believable relationship where emotions are constantly being negotiated, where each one opens up and then holds back.
Sincere and contemplative, watching “Dagitab” feels like reading a piece of literature. It is pensive and moving but never heavy, not forgetting to entertain with its heartfelt comedy. “Dagitab” reminds us how, in life and in love, we can be as fragile as little moths in the darkness. Like these tiny creatures, which in their solitude are drawn to the most promising flame, we yearn for that one dazzling spark. And in our wild impulses, we may come too close, hurting ourselves in the process. But sometimes, it’s the faintest light that keeps shining on. As Issey points out to Jimmy — who notices the fireflies gathering around them — “Nandyan lang naman yan. Hindi naman yan mawawala.” (It’s always been there. It never goes away.) As darkness settles, they remain still, perhaps letting a realization sink in: sometimes it’s the patient, placid kind of love that lasts.