Movie Review: Alone/Together is a Bittersweet Reclamation of the Past

TL;DR: Alone/Together weaves the personal & political to weave a gripping tale of self-rediscovery. It just happens to have a love story starring Enrique Gil & Liza Soberano in what might contain their best work yet.

Starting from her excellent, sadly underseen debut Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay, Antoinette Jadaone has always centered her films around smart, outspoken women & their struggles, depicting their inner lives without infantilizing them. Her romantic films & TV shows, which covers most of her work, are no different. Even when they’re heartbroken or lovestruck, they aren’t defined by their romance, since it only serves to complement who they have become over the course of her films. Her women leads are flawed, relatable, & unmistakably human, written with such rich detail that it’s easy to imagine them starring in films that don’t involve them falling in or out of love.

Alone/Together is no different. Christine (Liza Soberano) begins the film reminiscing when she views Juan Luna’s “Spoliarium” at the National Museum of Fine Arts. This is where she first met Raf (Enrique Gil) ten years ago, a B.S. Biology pre-med student at the University of Santo Tomas, Asia’s oldest existing university, who’s on track to get a medical degree. Back then, she was still a B.A. Arts Studies major on track to become a valedictorian in the prestigious, state-run University of the Philippines who volunteers as a tour guide at the museum in her spare time.

They couldn’t be more different. Raf is a confident, pragmatic student struggling with his studies, while Christine is a smart, ambitious, & passionate student with a strong sense of morality. She dreams of working in prestigious museums like the MoMa & Uffizi Gallery, so she can learn more about her craft & bring that knowledge back in here, where she can help push for institutional changes to support museums & Filipino art. Yet they still ended up together, which is good for Raf. Being with her inspires him to study hard so he can graduate as early as possible & build a life with her.

But it wasn’t meant to be. Christine breaks up with Raf, leaving him heartbroken. To make matters worse, she becomes an unwilling accomplice to her boss’ embezzlement scheme in her first job, which not only ruined her reputation & the chance to apply for internships at museums abroad, but also crumbled her confidence, especially in the face of any wrongdoing.

They both cross paths once again five years later. Raf is now an emergency room physician at a public hospital who also serves as a barrio doctor at Dinagat Island, and he also has a girlfriend named Sam (Jasmine Curtis-Smith), who works at the same hospital as a nurse. Christine now works for Greg (Luis Alandy), a successful businessman & her current boyfriend who supported Christine when he was her boss back when she faced criminal charges. Their sudden reunion forces both of them to take stock of their past decisions & consider the kind of people they have become.

But there’s no question whose story is being told here. The whole film is a feature-length flashback of Christine’s life, an autopsy of her failed dreams, missed opportunities, & small triumphs. It’s somewhat similar to the also excellent & sadly underseen Elise, as they are both tales of love & self-discovery that spans multiple years. The only difference is Christine already knows who she is, & the film tracks as she tries to reconcile the person she has become & the person she wants to be. Jadaone’s knack for breathing life to her female characters is on full display here, as she uses multiple periods of her life to reveal her flaws & complexities. Watching it all unfold is gripping, even more so when you consider that the main character is a woman. It’s rare to watch a movie backed by a mainstream studio that tells a tale of redemption with a woman at the center; probing her wants & needs with laser focus, & even pushing its male characters to the periphery when needed.

There’s also a heavy political subtext that ties it to its obsessions with the past, which is surprising for a film positioned as the Valentine’s Day movie event. Jadaone, who is a UP graduate herself, doesn’t use famous landmarks like the Sunken Garden just for its familiar, beautiful scenery. It lives up to the spirit of the Philippines’ top university famous for its fiery activism. It espouses the values of using the knowledge they’ve learned in & out of the classroom to help marginalized communities, & how a deeper understanding of our national history & proper support for Filipino arts will shape a better future for our country. At one point, Christine asks children to “never forget,” which is a local rallying cry against the Marcos’ resurgence to power & a reminder of the atrocities committed during Martial Law. It’s also become her unofficial mantra, one that allowed her to get stuck in the past.

Liza Soberano weaves all of these intricacies in her revelatory performance. Her role spans years & Soberano reveals the nuances of who Christine is in every stage of her life; even without the help of the gorgeous makeup & costume design, which fit perfectly for these characters. She’s vibrant & assured during Christine’s college years, which makes it even more painful whe she breaks down & turns into a stiff, aimless shell of who she used to be. That’s why it’s so thrilling when she finally makes small steps to reclaim pieces of her past as her own.

The film’s narrow focus on Christine does have a side effect: the romance feels somewhat lacking compared to the rest of Jadaone’s oeuvre. It glosses over important parts of Raf & Christine’s young romance, which makes it feel a bit weightless. We don’t get to know Raf with the same depth as Christine, since he’s rarely onscreen. He functions as a ghost, a painful reminder of what she could’ve been; which is funny because one of the theories surrounding Alone/Together before its release is Raf is dead.

But Raf feels alive thanks to Enrique Gil. He is burdened with the tricky task of making us believe that Christine is drawn to him outside of what he represents in her life. Thankfully, Gil gives Raf a crackling confidence he never lost once he aged, & layers it with the calm & maturity he never had once they reunite. When he does get to join Soberano onscreen, they just dazzle. Their youthful romance is vibrant & energetic, drunk on the endless possibilities of the future, that it becomes bittersweet when they meet once again fully changed by their experiences. There’s always a palpable sense of longing lingering between them, even as they both know that they can’t return to the way things were.

The act of reminiscing can be a cruel trap. Christine may have never forgotten, but it only reinforced her painful past. She has also grown up, & growing old is a process that will leave anyone tired & regreful. Alone/Together weaves the personal & political together to find a way to get out of the rut & finally move on from our past. Armed with the acknowledgement of her mistakes & the knowledge she gained to avoid making them again, she can take charge of her own story & rebuild what she has lost.

Movie Review: Elise is a Funny, Bittersweet Epic About an Ordinary Man

TL;DR: Elise expands on its seemingly unassuming premise into a funny, bittersweet epic of an ordinary man finding love & self-discovery in unexpected places.

Elise starts out simple enough. Bert (Enchong Dee) returns to his hometown in the province with an antique music box in his hand. After visiting his former grade school teacher where he used to study, he was asked to accompany Remy (Miel Espinoza) – one of her young, irresponsible students – on her way home. She becomes interested in his music box, so Bert decides to tell its origins.

It came from his first love Elise, an athletic, aloof girl one year older than him who was his exact opposite. Even so, they still became a couple, escorting him in a traditional rite of tuli & indulging themselves at an ice cream parlor. But it wasn’t meant to be, as Elise & the rest of her family are moving to Manila. Elise breaks up with him, & hands him the same antique music box he’s holding in his hand in the present. Bert was so stunned by the sudden end of his first relationship that he didn’t even say a single word as she left their hometown.

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That would’ve been the logical endpoint of his story, but he still kept going. What starts out as a small paean to first love grows into something more ambitious. It’s obvious that Elise made a huge impact in his life, and she continues to haunt his life in small ways. The movie even opens up to include other people who made a mark on his life. There’s his kind, supportive mother Mama Josie (Jackie Lou Blanco), his fiery grandmother Lola Jesusa (Pilita Corrales), his goofy best friend Gian (Victor Anastacio), & Rita (Laura Lehmann), a nurse in training in charge of taking care of Lola Jesusa, whose true passion lies in writing. He even crosses paths with Elise again, this time played wonderfully by Janine Guiterrrez, who now has a boyfriend (Miko Raval).

Elise slowly transforms into a story of a young man stumbling his way in & out of love & self-discovery that spans decades, marked with missed opportunities, branching paths, triumphs, failures, and even death; turning the life of an ordinary man into a sprawling epic. It’s amazing it can do this in under two hours, because it’s the kind of movie that feels much longer than it should. That’s not meant as an insult. It’s so engaging & affecting when it takes you on an emotional journey that it can be hard to keep track of time.

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It does this, surprisingly enough, by avoiding the tropes & clichés of biopics. Not every event presented in the film is declared with utmost importance nor does it reveal to be a building block towards Bert’s maturation. It makes time for those fine details & small moments that while may not change Bert’s life completely, but still reverberate throughout his life, acting as reminders for the people he crossed paths with or a way to reveal a tiny facet of their personality. When it’s time to showcase momentous events from Bert’s life, it does so with specificity & warmth that it turns something familiar as a graduation or a breakup into something that’s completely lived-in. It’s the kind of movie that would reveal that Elise would play a game of FLAMES when she had a fight with her boyfriend or a graduation picture that blocks out Bert’s then-girlfriend. It’s a marvel of editing that these never become intrusive or turn the movie into a sluggish mess.

It is far from a somber treatise on love & life though. Joel Ferrer & Miko Livelo’s script are peppered with silly, hilarious gags, which isn’t a surprise to anyone familiar with their work; both of whom have been making solid, underrated comedies with a heavy focus on the follies & struggles of men. The movie’s focus on small moments makes it easier for them to set up these jokes without distracting from the film’s gentle storytelling. It would show a scene where Bert, Gian & Lola Jesusa goofing off with fireworks & its consequences just because it would be funny & amusing. They feel like small vignettes that fill out the shades of the rich tapestry they have created, without losing its tender, bittersweet nature or its ability to move from one moment to another without a hitch.

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This tapestry they’ve built would have unraveled quickly if not for the excellent ensemble they’ve filled out throughout the movie. Pilita Corrales & Jackie Lou Blanco imbue their characters with so much life even in their limited screentime, which is a challenging feat to accomplish, that it’s easy to understand why Bert would feel so much love & affection for them. Miel Espinoza is a great foil to Bert’s earnestness, annoying him with her impatience & snarky comebacks, which makes it more fulfilling when she reveals the sadness that she’s felt for a long time. Victor Anastacio has carved out his own niche for playing silly side characters, & Gian fits him like a glove, even if he’s less manic compared to his other roles. Janine Guiterrez is captivating as the title character, a confident woman who couldn’t quite escape the whims of her parents or her boyfriend, until she finally does; it helps that the film doesn’t allow Elise to be seen only through Bert’s rose-colored glasses.

But this movie wouldn’t work at all without Enchong Dee. He’s at the center of the movie, holding everything together as Bert moves from one point of his life to another. It helps that Enchong Dee has a warm, Everyman presence, so seeing him embody Bert’s transformation from a shy, awkward man who just wants to hang out with his buddies into a mature, responsible adult who never lost his goofy side never becomes jarring or boring.

Elise is apparently based on a true story, but even without knowing this tidbit you can already feel from Bert’s journey that this is the case. Bert may be an ordinary man lucky enough to live in ordinary circunstances, yet his nearly aimless journey, one that can’t be grafted onto a three-act structure that easily, echoes so much of the pain & beauty that’s out there in a world ruled by an omnipresent randomness. We will face a constant string of beginnings, endings, and moments that will not mean anything in the grand scheme of things, but what’s important is to keep yourself open to love in all its forms. Sometimes, what we don’t expect to change our lives might’ve been right there all along.

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