TL;DR: Can’t quite overcome the nature of Sam & Isa’s illicit affair, but Tayo sa Huling Buwan ng Taon expands & tweaks its predecessor to create a fascinating tale of regret & heartbreak.
Contains spoilers for Ang Kwento Nating Dalawa (The Story of Us That Never Was)
Even if newcomers wouldn’t be confused jumping straight ahead to this much-awaited sequel of an indie sleeper hit, it’s hard to discuss Tayo sa Huling Buwan ng Taon (Us, At the End of the Year) alone when it is tied down to its own past. Ang Kwento Nating Dalawa (The Story of Us That Never Was) introduced us to Isa & Sam, an affectionate couple who have been together for six months. Their lives may appear typical, but that is nothing more than a facade. And just like their relationship, it crumbles slowly before our very eyes. Sam (Nicco Manalo) is joining a film fellowship program in Berlin. Isa (Emmanuelle Vera) is moving to the U.S. She also has a longtime boyfriend Frank, who we never see in the film. If that wasn’t enough, the film’s final twist exposes an important, icky detail that changes our perception of their relationship: Sam is Isa’s college professor in film school.
It’s a detail that hangs like a dark cloud, but only because it adds even more ambiguity to a movie already drowning in it. It’s a slow, natutalistic movie, following their everyday lives from their long, daily commutes to moments of quiet intimacy, dropping subtle hints on the true nature of their relationship, while the constant hums of the city can be heard in the background; a reminder of the world around them moving forward amidst their uncertain future. It presents their conversations, their foibles & everything else in between without any judgment nor titillation, even before the true nature of their relationship is revealed.
But as much as it loves to trail behind Sam as he rides the LRT-2 train with long takes, it never feels loose. There’s a precision & restraint involved on how each scene is crafting a specific portrait of this particular couple. Those long takes are punctuated with awkward pauses & silences, or moments of routine that show how straining it is to try & hold on to something that’s not meant to last. It obfuscates important details, dropping them out of nowhere, & undercutting its impact, making it feel like we’re eavesdropping on two strangers trying to piece together who they really are. Not only does it make the movie’s insular world feel realistic – because they wouldn’t explain details they’re already familiar with – but it also removes the couple from the circumstances surrounding them & focus on the intricacies of their relationship & its impending end. It lets us feel what they’re feeling, even if they couldn’t express it well.
That becomes a problem when the relationship is centered around a teacher & his student. There’s a huge power imbalance that can turn their sweet romance into something more exploitative. To be fair, Sam never abuses his authority against Isa, nor does he have enough power to do so if he tries. But by revealing this detail at the end of the film without exploring its origin or its implications, it’s a cheap, hollow twist used for shock value, leaving a lot of doubt to the nature of their dynamic that it becomes discomforting.
Thanks to the passage of time, Tayo sa Huling Buwan ng Taon can leave behind the events of its predecessor & make a fresh start, but that doesn’t mean Sam, Isa, & this movie are unburdened from its past. Set during, well, December 2018, it looks at Sam & Isa’s new lives years after their relationship ended. Sam now works as a high school teacher & it’s where he met his girlfriend Anna (Anna Luna), a fellow high school teacher who is as smart & assured as he is. Isa is back with Frank (Alex Medina), who is revealed to be a goofy, supportive pilot/illustrator. Both of them are spending their final days in the Philippines, as they are going to migrate to the U.S. on New Year’s Eve for Isa’s publishing job on January.
Since this is a sequel, there’s no question that Sam & Isa will meet eventually. What makes it so fascinating is how it carries the same approach of its forebear & transforming it into something equally uneasy & pensive. It paints the lives of each couple, switching back and forth between them to fill us in on their ordinary lives. Unlike the first movie, it opens up their world to their friends & families; the latter of which are integral part of their lives that they are treated as future in-laws.
It’s clear early on that Anna, Frank, or anyone else in Sam & Isa’s orbit are not foils or obstacles they need to overcome. Anna & Frank are people with their own wants & needs who bear the scars of their complicated lives, but somehow found their perfect match with Sam & Isa. They are also played by excellent additions to what was once a small cast. Anna Luna is confident & sweet as the similarly named Anna, a woman aware of what she wants in life. Alex Medina revels in Frank’s jokey nature but it’s clear he’s holding onto his own emotional baggage.
It takes a while for the movie to unpack this & other possible red flags scattered throughout, because it delves into each couple longer than you’d expect. Just like before, it can make something mundane on paper so absorbing to watch. It feels so alive & textured, crammed with so many details & moments that inform so much about their new lives. But thanks to its unconventional structure, there’s an underlying tension that grows bigger the longer it keeps Sam & Isa apart. We see what’s at stake here, indirectly asking us if their relationship is even worth reviving at all or if there’s even a possibility of it even happening. It’s an audacious gambit that weaponizes our familiarity with Sam, Isa & the previous movie. We’re watching people live out ordinary lives prone to the chaos & randomness brought by the whims of fate, unaware that a slowly ticking bomb is about to go off.
It doesn’t even erupt the instant they meet. None of the usual conflicts arise out of their initial encounter. Sam & Isa are hiding their sadness & regret and in turn the movie reflects it at us, like a heavy, inescapable fog they can’t escape from. The storytelling becomes more opaque as every glance & gesture carry more weight than they should. It does introduce huge developments but they disrupt the movie’s flow, even if it moves the plot, since once again it’s more interested on the main ensemble’s emotions rather than how it would affect their lives. It also stacks them next to each other without giving it room to breathe.
The spectre of their past looms once again during these scenes, bringing the same problems with it. The whole movie hinges on two people still grieving what they have lost, but it’s hard to mourn for them when its origins are uncomfortable; especially when a December Avenue’s heartwrenching power ballad is the movie’s unofficial theme song. To the film’s credit, it’s less of a problem now because we’re privy to the growth they went through & it still implies that nothing abusive happened with their relationship, but it just highlights how unnecessary it is.
But Nicco Manalo & Emmanuelle Vera cast a spell that elevates this complicated love story out of that muck. They’ve always had excellent chemistry together even at Sam & Isa’s most vulnerable, fragile moments, which is what made it so painful to watch them drift apart in Ang Kwento Nating Dalawa. Tayo sa Huling Buwan ng Taon never forgets this, even as you watch Manalo & Vera ignite sparks with Luna & Medina, who have their subtle, distinct dynamics but are nevertheless equally captivating. Their connection can still be felt despite their new lives in brief moments, a far cry from what these two star-crossed lovers used to have. Tayo sa Huling Buwan ng Taon is built on these tiny echoes of the past that continue to reverberate throughout their lives & thrives within it, trapping us in their regret & uncertainty that it becomes suffocating, but it also carries some needless baggage that’s hard to ignore. It’s in everyone’s best interest to move on.