Movie Review: Sakaling Maging Tayo is a Charmingly Awkward Road Trip Around Baguio

TL;DR: Sakaling Maging Tayo (If We Fall in Love) may shuffle along with a somewhat inorganic, chill plot, but it’s got sincerity, charm, & awkwardness to spare.

Sakaling Maging Tayo (If We Fall in Love) concerns two people who are stuck in different ways. Laya (Elisse Joson) is a college freshman about to leave Baguio for Manila after her philandering ex-boyfriend broke up with her. But before she does, she wants to speak to him for she thinks she might be pregnant & she didn’t have sex with anyone else. However, her only proof is she hasn’t had her period for more than a week. Pol has always had a crush on Laya ever since she handed her a handkerchief during enrolment, but he never had the guts to talk to her. He’s satisfied pining for her from afar.

Both of them are knocked out of their comfort zones in a single night. Pol borrowed his father’s taxi – which he often drives himself to earn some quick cash – for a fun night out with his best friend at a music festival scattered around the city. After a contentious meeting with her ex that left her in tears, she enters Pol’s taxi, unknowingly thinking he was on duty tonight. Pol relents & soon they find themselves knowing more about each other. On a whim, they decide to accomplish a series of dares Laya wrote with her friends & kept on a pouch, roaming around Baguio while Pol hopes he can tell her how she really feels.

Young love is often portrayed as a dizzying, energetic rush of emotions, where people rush headfirst into a relationship consequences be damned. Sakaling Maging Tayo is different. Laya & Pol are both on the cusp of adulthood & it shows in their interactions. They put up facades of inner strength for others when deep down they are as anxious & awkward as everyone else. They are afraid of what the future holds for them – either due to its possibilities or its limitations – & would rather run away from their problems. Embracing the status quo is much easier.

J.P. Habac bakes all of this uncertainty into a coming-of-age road movie that sputters gently as it moves. It hobbles from one event to the next, with the only connecting tissue being Laya & Pol’s burgeoning attraction throughout a single night. Some of the obstacles don’t feel organic, which makes it feel sluggish than it should be, but it can be easily ignored thanks to its relaxed vibe. It also portrays Laya & Pol’s interactions as realistic as possible. Everyone in the film speak like ordinary people do, and it relishes on the stiff interactions fueled by doubt & jitters, familiar to anyone trying to learn more about a person they like a lot. It savors every forced laugh, every knowing glance, & at times allowing the silence to hang in the air.

This isn’t as cringe-inducing as it sounds. It’s smothered with a charming innocence that’s alluring instead of abrasive, just like J.P. Habac’s previous film I’m Drunk, I Love You, it also has a fantastic, bittersweet soundtrack underscoring their emotions bubbling underneath the surface. Of course, the main couple sell all of this in its awkward glory. With his look alone, McCoy de Leon can pine for someone with equal infatuation & heartbreak, while Elisse Joson can easily shift between confusion & confidence. Even with his brief appearance, Bembol Roco is also outstanding as Pol’s father. His poignant scene with de Leon where he gives him the advice he needs to hear stands as one of the best father-son scenes I’ve seen a while. Sakaling Maging Tayo may enjoy going off course, often to its detriment, but it knows that you can’t run away forever from your problems. Sometimes, you need to make the first few moves.

MMFF 2018: Mary, Marry Me is a Fun Romp That Loses Itself in the Wedding

TL;DR: Mary, Marry Me is too distracted by hijinx to effectively deliver a lovely story between estranged sisters.

Putting real-life sisters Toni & Alex Gonzaga in the same movie is already a great idea on its own. If done right, their sisterly bond can be easily translated onscreen with no trouble, and their different comedic personas will result in hilarious interplay. Adding Sam Milby in the mix by putting him at the center of a love triangle between the two, somewhat reviving his successful love team with Toni Gonzaga during the last decade, and you have a possible crowdpleaser that’s sure to entice any Gonzaga superfan. To be fair, Mary, Marry Me knows this & tries its best to mine the talents of everyone involved & turn it into something special. However, the end result is so sloppy it ends up undermining the whole film.

Ever since they were young, Mary Jane (Toni Gonzaga) has always been protective of her younger sister Mary Anne (Alex Gonzaga). They may bicker once in a while, but they always remained close. But when both of their parents die in a car accident, Mary Jane decides that the best thing to do is to accept her aunt’s offer to petition Mary Anne to America. Neither one of them want to be separated from each other, but Mary Jane believes this will give her sister a chance at a better life. She promises her sister that she’d visit her in America, but she never did.

They would be reunited decades later, but not in the way they expected. Mary Anne is returning to the Philippines to get married in her home country, with Mary Jane – now a successful wedding planner – organizing her sister’s wedding. What Mary Jane didn’t know is Mary Anne’s fiance is Pete (Sam Milby), Mary Jane’s ex-boyfriend. Mary Jane was initially concerned about their setup, but she was reassured by both Mary Jane & Pete that this wouldn’t be a problem. However, Mary Anne still has feelings for Pete, which she knows will not only jeopardize the wedding, but her already fraught bond with her sister.

It’s a setup that could devolve into a clichéd, misogynistic mess almost immediately, in the grand tradition of bridal movies about women’s supposed inability to stay sane in a wedding & retain healthy relationships with other women. But outside of a single critical instance of slut-shaming, it mostly sidesteps this by focusing on the unresolved tension between the two sisters. It’s a smart decision, since not only is it more compelling than watching two women fight over a man, the film creates a complicated dynamic caused by their long separation that is sweet & touching.

The fact that the Gonzaga sisters are paired together helps a lot too. Each scene between them are crackling with energy, with Alex Gonzaga putting her hyperactive, heightened persona to good use, giving a much needed jolt to already funny jokes, while Toni Gonzaga acts as the straight man who can fight back with grace while befuddled at the situation she’s trapped in. Their obvious affection for each other shines throughout the film, adding a layer of poignancy even in the film’s smallest moments; like when Mary Anne & Mary Jane goofing off as they go through their old stuff.

It’s too bad it clashes with the broad romantic comedy it’s built out off. Not because it’s terrible! Some of the jokes may be stale, but they are funnier & sharper than it has any right to be, even if it can be mean-spirited at times &. The rest of the cast, including Melai Cantiveros, Bayani Agbayani, Milo Elmido Jr., & Moi Marcampo can sell any joke through their delivery alone. Sam Milby is a fantastic foil for the two women. He’s charismatic & has great chemistry with both of them, especially with Toni Gonzaga, whose time-tested chemistry is on full display here.

It just couldn’t find a way for these two tones to mesh naturally. Instead of providing a wacky backdrop for the sisters’ emotionally loaded relationship, it becomes a distraction. The movie keeps circling around to the broad hijinx afforded by its premise to setting up Pete’s romance with both Mary Anne & Pete. Those moments are delightful on its own, but it stalls an already complicated story from moving forward. It’s frustrating, since it reduces the emotional impact of the movie’s final scenes, where everything comes to a head. Mary, Marry Me may have its eyes on the altar, but the real relationship it needed to focus on isn’t on the church aisle.

MMFF 2018: Otlum Looks Great But is Just as Dumb as Its Title

TL;DR: Otlum looks great, but it mucks up a decent idea by being lazy & derivative.

It’s hard to get over the fact that a movie called Otlum got included in the Metro Manila Film Festival in the godawful year of 2018, as if the MMFF executive committee is coming up with new ways to show how obnoxious & terrible this whole endeavor has become. For everyone who doesn’t speak Tagalog, Otlum is the Tagalog word for ‘ghost’ spelled backwards; which means its English title will probably be ‘Tsohg.’ This method of inverting a word or its syllables is described as tadbalik, & is used to create new Pinoy slang that will often be used by the hippest of youths. The problem is no one really says ‘otlum’ unless they’re referring to the movie or saying it ironically like what my cousin & I have been doing for the past few weeks. It reeks of trying to make ‘fetch’ happen. It’s not cool & it’s never gonna happen.

The same can be said for the popular clique at the center of this lackluster horror movie. Outside of their conventional beauty, the film doesn’t offer any compelling reason why people admire them at all. All of them are bland, amorphous cutouts whose sole characteristic is defined by their ties to the group, & they all talk like they were written by an adult trying & failing to capture how today’s youth talk & feel. Instead, it goes for the easy route of having them awkardly drop the word ‘hashtag’ in conversations & sigh explain what an ‘otlum’ is.

At least one part of the problem makes sense, since their connections aren’t formed by warmth or affection. They are basically a part of a fraternity founded by a smug asshole played by Jerome Ponce, where the only way to enter is through a series of punishing, embarrassing tests; one of them had to drink everyone else’s urine in order to be accepted to the group. He lords over everyone with his strict rules & his demand for absolute devotion to their brotherhood, & the rest of the group is chafing under his restrictions beneath their happy facade. It’s not allowed to date anyone within the group, yet there’s already a man & a woman hiding their romantic status from everyone. It doesn’t help one of the boys has a crush with the same woman, and he’s starting to suspect the truth behind the couple. One of them even starts questioning their humiliating rituals to enter their group. It’s unclear what they get out of the group but they’re still sticking it out for some reason; even if it makes them all slightly miserable.

This doesn’t stop Fred (Buboy Villar) from trying to force his way into the group. He doesn’t have anyone except for a distant mother (Irma Adlawan) who only bothers him for money he earns from repairing appliances, & a so-called friend (Kiray Celis) who always berates him whenever he’s around, so his need to befriend them is a somewhat understandable and completely misguided attempt at making connections. He becomes so desparate that at one point he bribes their affection with free food & drinks. Most of them have no intention in including him in the group, yet they continue to harass him as part of his “initiation.” As part of his final test, Fred has to stay inside an abandoned orphanage with a disturbing past for the whole night. When he finds out that they never intend to include him in the group anyway, he vows to take revenge. He kills himself & haunts them one by one with the help of a young ghost lurking in the same orphanage. Whatever fraught bonds the group has becomes even shakier. Some of them consult a paranormal investigator (John Estrada) to help them fight against Fred & his cohort. However, even the paranormal investigator himself has a grim past with the orphanage & now he is forced to face them in order to save the rest of the group.

It’s so hard to care about what happens though. Besides the awful dialogue & half-baked motivations from almost everyone, it’s just a nasty, boring slog of a movie. Outside of Fred, which is the film’s most sympathetic character, it’s a head-on plunge into awful human behavior without the wit, insight, or even a believable piece of humanity to make it bearable. This makes it harder to care for the group, which means there’s no tension when Fred starts terrorizing them. It also doesn’t help that its scares are done at a bare minimum, with nary a hint of inspiration or effort done to them. They feel so lifeless, like it’s an obligation for the film to deliver something scary when it doesn’t seem interested in doing so. Seeing a ghost run out of nowhere in plain sight doesn’t constitute a scare, nor does it grip anyone into thinking that something bad might happen to anyone.

It does have some of the best visuals for MMFF 2018, which is shocking considering the dire material. While none of it is mind-blowing, Jun Dalawis & Teejay Gonzales uses a ton of close-ups & medium shots that capture the insular, alienating world of the popular group & Fred’s forlorn existence. There’s a care & craft here that just couldn’t be seen on the script. This can be found in its best scene: Fred crying alone in his workspace after he was ditched by the popular clique, left drenched in the rain while wearing a formal suit. It’s framed by simple static shots that often obscure his face, with Buboy Villar finally revealing the totality of his anguish & disillusionment. It taps into what could’ve been a nuanced, acidic horror film about the toxic nature of fraternities & what makes them so attractive to people like Fred.

Instead, what we get is a rote horror movie filled with dumb, underwritten characters that’s hard to care for. At the very least, it is only 75 minutes long, so this isn’t as punishing as it should be. If only the film tried even harder to be good as much as it tried to sound cool, we could’ve gotten something more substantial.