Mr. & Mrs. Cruz & How We Define Happy Endings

Contains spoilers for Mr. & Mrs. Cruz. If you’re looking for a spoiler-free review, you can read it here.

Romantic comedies carry a lot of expectations about what kind of movies they’ll be. They will almost always feature two young, gorgeous people who, slowly but surely, will fall in love & get the happy ending they deserve; both of whom will presumably have a happy relationship once the credits roll. It’s a formula that works for a good reason: It’s fun, escapist, somewhat idealistic entertainment & there’s nothing wrong with that.

Mr. & Mrs. Cruz seems like it would be a traditional romantic comedy updated for current audiences. That’s not a problem, because it’s a masterful execution of the genre thanks to Sigrid Andrea Bernardo & the lovely performances from Ryza Cenon & JC Santos. But the movie has more in its mind, pushing beyond its initial premise that somehow makes it more human & fanciful at the same time.

Both Raffy (JC Santos) & Gela (Ryza Cenon) have valid reasons to get away from the city & take a tour of Palawan. Initially we’re only told that Raffy finds a letter from her fiance breaking off the engagement with the ring near it before the wedding, while Gela hugs her wedding dress, clearly dreading the idea of going through the wedding. But once they both start drinking at a bar after a day of bonding together, they finally share the reasons why they took their vacation. Raffy’s fiancee left him at the altar after being with him for three years, while Gela left his husband after they got married for three months; whom she’s been with for eight years. Raffy is still wounded by this, especially since he proposed to his fiancee on Palawan three years ago. Gela feels hurt & guilty for leaving her husband, who gave her everything she wanted when they were together for eight years; even if she needed to do so because she’s losing herself in their relationship.

Their drunken, hilarious, heart-to-heart talk helped them gain a mutual understanding on one’s heartbreak. Raffy now understands why her fiancee left, while he assures Gela that she did the right thing. This leads to the couple trying to make out while completely wasted on alcohol, which ends with Gela puking on Raffy, Gela trying to find Nemo of Finding Nemo in her vomit, & feeding some of it to Raffy, a disgusting but hilarious ending to their fun, heartfelt night.

After they’ve woken up & had a contentious misunderstanding about last night’s events, it’s clear that they’ve become even closer & more enamored of each other. They are freed from their issues thanks to one another. When they found out that the tour they joined left them, they decide to explore the sights of Palawan together. It even inspired Raffy to show Gela a video of his engagement from his ex-fiancee & delete it afterwards. Gela is shocked to find out that Gela & her ex-husband were also in Palawan back when they weren’t married when Raffy proposed to his ex-fiancee. She decides not to tell him, as they continue to enjoy each other’s company.

It’s at this point you’d expect the movie to end, with both of them presumably having a long, happy relationship after they leave the island. Why couldn’t it? They’re clearly in love, they comforted & supported each other, & the movie even implies that they’re destined to be together.

But Gela doesn’t want to pursue a relationship with Raffy. She thinks they’re both at different points in their life, & they need more time to find their place in the world. Even she finds their whole situation to be unreal, commenting that it’s something out of a romantic comedy. And she thinks they might see each other someday. Raffy asks her to reconsider & trade contact details, but she declines, leaving him alone in Palawan. After she left, Raffy finds her copy of Romeo & Juliet. He opens it & reads her parting message, with her incomplete cellphone number scribbled in the book’s first page. He also finds a picture of Gela, ripped from a photo taken by the newlywed couple who joined their tour.

It’s an ending that is at odds with itself, falling outside of the typical “happy ending” demanded by the genre while embracing the tropes of the genre. However, it makes complete sense. While their story has the makings of a fantastic romantic-comedy – and I’d agree because the movie is fantastic – they still have a lot to work on. Both of them still need to figure out what to do next; especially Gela, who’s trying to learn who she is after staying in a relationship for eight years. Staying together would worsen whatever hangups they have. Finding someone to love & reciprocates that feeling may be the usual conclusion we get in romantic comedies, but Mr. & Mrs. Cruz suggests that prioritizing our self-improvement is more important. Maybe after we find ourselves, it’ll be easier to find the “happy ending” we deserve.

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Movie Review: Mr. & Mrs. Cruz is a Hilarious, Resonant Tale About Moving On

TL;DR: Mr. & Mrs. Cruz embraces the genre’s tropes & executes them masterfully, but it becomes more heartfelt once it leaves them behind.

It should be obvious from the trailers that Mr. & Mrs. Cruz is another hugot-infused “Before Sunrise” riff in a picturesque locale that’s sure to inspire lots of swooning romantics & broken-hearted cynics to go soul-searching on Palawan to find themselves. It’s a formula on the verge of becoming banal & repetitive, as numerous Filipino movies have used the template by the influential That Thing Called Tadhana (That Thing Called Destiny), but riffed on it in different ways. The latest movie from Sigrid Andrea Bernardo, the director of Ang Huling Cha-Cha ni Anita (Anita’s Last Cha-Cha) & the highest-grossing Filipino indie Kita Kita (I See You), might lean closer to the formula compared to others, but it’s done brilliantly, while coming up with its own ideas.

Gela Cruz (Ryza Cenon) & Raffy Cruz (JC Santos) are two tourists who went to Palawan in order to find themselves on their own after both experienced a wedding-related snafu. Neither of them have met before, but people keep confusing them for a married couple thanks to their similar, yet ridiculously common surname; including an old couple celebrating their golden anniversary & newlywed couple who are grouped with them in the tour. At first, they try their best to stick to their plans of enjoying this trip alone, but they easily hit it off; even if they had a huge fight about the importance of marriage. What they slowly realize is they each have something to impart that will help them move past their heartbreak.

What makes Mr. & Mrs. Cruz stand out from the rest is how it sharpens the film’s elements at its most effective. The movie mostly sticks with Gela & Raffy for the rest of the movie talking to each other, & it never grinds to a complete halt. Bernardo has always had a great ear for memorable dialogue & that quality shines through. The conversations Gela & Raffy have range from the silly, mundane, & hugot-related, but it’s always witty & engaging. They’ll be riffing on the implications of eating El Nido soup, how Romeo & Juliet isn’t aspirational once you look at it during adulthood, & their heated exchange about the need for marriage. Even those outside Gela & Raffy are amusing & memorable, giving the main couple a chance to interact with others. It isn’t above indulging in scenes outside its grounded tone if it will lead to something remarkable, including a funny gag involving dry-fit shorts & moments of whimsy that’s one of Bernardo’s trademarks. All of it is stirkingly shot, capturing how Gela & Raffy are slowly becoming closer to each other from the exquisite beaches of Palawan to its clean hotel rooms.

But the movie wouldn’t work without Ryza Cenon & JC Santos at its center. Their initial awkwardness quickly give way to a comfortable looseness they easily exude. It’s so enthralling to carry themselves well to Bernardo’s snappy dialogue. JC Santos is more aggressive & slightly reckless as Raffy, while Ryza Cenon is more composed as Gela, but willing to banter or fight back at Raffy’s repartee.

But starting from the night Raffy & Gela get drunk at a bar, it becomes clear Ryza Cenon is the instant standout. She becomes an emotional trainwreck as Raffy & Gela dig deeper about their issues. Cenon switches from laughing, drinking, crying, & laugh-crying while drinking, turning into a manifestation of a heartbroken id who drowns her sorrow with alcohol, but no matter how hard she tries, her broken heart always wins out; so she might as well have fun. JC Santos plays the much needed equally heartbroken, but more levelheaded drunken straight man, reacting to Gela’s ramblings while trying to make sure she’s safe. As they return to their hotel room, they reciprocate each others feelings in clumsy, awkward yet romantic fashion that inevitably turns into a literal mess.

Its heavy use of tropes appears to be purposeful though. Bernardo keeps propelling the narrative to something more emotionally true, even as it includes a twist that seems out of place. It’s a neat trick that makes it even more insightful & human. At the end, Mr. & Mrs. Cruz reveals what it truly is: a story of two people making sense of each other’s pain & sorrow. 

#52FilmsByWomen 2017 Film # 6: Kita Kita (I See You)

Who took a pledge to watch 52 films directed by women this year? This guy! Full-length & short films are eligible as long as a woman directed it; co-directing credits count too. The 6th movie on my list is Sigrid Andrea Bernardo’s Kita Kita (I See You). 

Kita Kita (I See You) has two problematic premises baked into its story.

Alessandra de Rossi is Lea, a tourist guide working in Sapporo, Japan. Her engagement of two years with her Japanese fiancee ends, once she finds he’s cheating on her with her friend. On her way home, she loses her sense of sight due to stress. While she’s alone, angry & blind, she meets Tonyo, played by Empoy Marquez. He’s her Filipino neighbor who wants to befriend her, since he’s all alone & homesick in a foreign land. She’s adamant at first, but once Lea lowers her defenses & Tonyo reveals his sincere, funny side, they become close enough to be a couple.

On the surface, it looks like a novel, innocuous spin on the hugot-filled romantic comedy, complete with a tourist-friendly destination bound to be visited by the movie’s fans & a romantic theme song sung by a well-regarded singer. That’s true. However, it is part of a long line of Filipino movies using the lead’s failure to meet the Western beauty standards to explore what “true beauty” is. You know, the one on the inside: kindness, integrity, & intelligence. It stretches back to the movies of Rene Requiestas & Zorayda Sanchez, and now comedians like Kiray Celis, Vice Ganda, & this time Empoy Marquez continuing this tradition.

While these movies allow those who look like ordinary people to star in their own movie, it can be a mean-spirited & hypocritical affair. It allows the audience to laugh at a person’s supposed shortcomings while feeling morally superior for siding with the protagonist. It indulges in the exact thing it demonizes.

These tropes can be tempered with the characters making the jokes themselves without bordering on self-hatred & making them self-aware, likable, capable human beings who fight back. But if the movie isn’t careful, it can tilt into the other direction & become hateful in other ways. A great example is Vice Ganda’s movies, where it goes out of its way to mock everyone that it often punches down. God knows we don’t need more jokes mocking people with dark skin.

The second one happens late in the film. It recontextualizes the rest of the movie & it turns Leo into a bit of a creep. To explain it would spoil the movie, so it would be better to skip the next paragraphs between the spoiler tags

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It turns out Tonyo lied about when they first met. After a bad breakup in Tokyo, he decided to go to Sapporo while on a bender because that’s the name of the beer he’s drinking. While taking a selfie with a Sapporo beer can, he accidentally captures Lea walking behind him.

That’s when he decided to follow her & hang out near her place. Lea mistakes him for a lowly beggar, so she always gives him food as she goes to work. While Lea is in a bad mood due to her fiance, she snaps at him, telling him to clean himself & fix his life. That’s when he realizes he needs to change. He looks for a job & a place to stay in Sapporo.

That doesn’t mean he stopped following her or intruding in her life. We find out that he’s the one who saved a kid from going to the fountain, the one who gave her the boquet of flowers in front of her house, the one in the banana suit, & the one who told Lea her fiance was cheating on her.

It turns Tonyo into a well-intentioned, opportunistic stalker. He tracked her down constantly, intruded on her personal life, bothered her constantly & introduced himself under false pretenses. It was nice of him to be there for Lea during tough times & telling her about her fiance’s cheating, & this part of Tonyo showing his gratitude to Lea, but this is still alarming, manipulative behavior. What makes it worse is the movie makes it out as a lovely, romantic gesture, when this kind of behavior would probably get arrested in real life.

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But the movie finds a way to soften these problematic elements by focusing on the burgeoning closeness between the central couple. With the two of them alone in Sapporo & Lea blind, no one can comment on Tonyo’s facial features constantly except themselves. And when it does, it does so sparingly. The first time it’s even mentioned is halfway through the movie, with Empoy making a cheeky joke describing his appearance to Lea. It was able to sidestep the “issue” with Empoy’s appearance without overwhelming the narrative with jokes directed at Tonyo.

The movie isn’t as successful at toning down Tonyo’s shifty behavior. While the movie makes it clear he did it all out of good will & gratitude towards Lea, it still doesn’t call him out about how he acted. Tonyo may be aware about his looks compared to Lea, but he’s not that aware how his behavior crossed some lines.

Despite these, the movie is ridiculously funny & charming it makes easy to forget its flaws. The script by Sigrid Andrea Bernardo has set up a wonderful premise filled with funny jokes grounded in each of the characters’ behavior & flaws that pay off at the end. It’s a small, grounded tale that pulls the audience in through pure emotion. Both of the characters aren’t as three-dimensional as expected, given the film’s devotion to focusing on their love story.

It helps this movie has excellent performances from Alessandra de Rossi & Empoy Marquez. Both of them rarely play parts in romantic comedies, if at all, yet this should prove they have the chops to headline their own movie. You can always rely on Alessandra de Rossi for a great performance, and this is no different. She has a warm, friendly presence befitting her role as a tourist guide, & she shows Lea’s pricklier side without creating any disconnect. But the biggest surprise here is Empoy Marquez. It’s no surprise that he’s funny, but his charisma in this movie is off-the-charts. His ordinary looks belie his charms, using his wit & confidence to become closer to Lea & reel us deeper into their love story. Together, they have a unique chemistry that should make other love teams jealous.

It even smoothens out the movie’s choppy editing, a result of Spring Films pulling out of MMFF 2016 to make it shorter. The pacing is rushed, making Lea & Tonyo’s growing relationship feel hollow. But it only reinforces the strength of their performances, as it fills the gaps left by the script & the editing. If anything, it makes the romance at the forefront of the story more potent. It proves that the only thing you need to make a good, memorable romantic comedy is a unique premise with a ridiculously likable, charming couple at the center, but it isn’t enough to make it a classic.

#52FilmsByWomen 2017 Film # 1: Curiosity, Adventure & Love

Who took a pledge to watch 52 films directed by women this year? This guy! Full-length & short films are eligible as long as a woman directed it; co-directing credits count too. The 1st movie on my list is Sunshine Lichauco de Leon and Suzanne Richiardone’s Curiosity, Adventure, & Love. 

Jessie Lichauco is a perfect subject for a documentary.

As of writing, she’s 105 years old, living in an ancestral home recognized as a historical building by the Philippine government near the Pasig River where she has lived most of her life; a body of water that’s been used by Filipinos a long time ago as a place to get their food, to conduct their businesses, or  to travel within what is now known as Metro Manila.

She was born in Cuba, orphaned when she was still a child, & sent by her relatives to a convent school in St. Augustine, Florida; which coincidentally is where Ponce de Leon searched for the fountain of youth. She met a Filipino lawyer named Marcial Lichauco – the first Filipino to graduate at Harvard University – while he was on a mission to convince the American leaders to grant independence to the Philippines. Both of them hit it off & started a whirlwind romance. When she was invited by Marcial to visit the Philippines, she traveled halfway around the world during a time, when a woman doing something like this is unorthodox, in order to be with him; she did this while she was 18 years old. They got married that same year.

She was here during the Japanese occupation & managed to avoid the wrath of Japanese soldiers against Americans. During the war, she turned her temporary house into a makeshift hospital, helping those who are wounded, hungry, & homeless. After the war, she became more involved in philanthropic work. She focused on helping children in need, joining organizations that focus on helping those who are abandoned, neglected, or orphaned like Association De Damas De Filipinas, or personally putting them through school.

Thankfully, we live in a universe were not only does Jessie Lichauco is alive & doing well, she has her own documentary featuring her outstanding life.

The whole movie features interviews from Jessie Lichauco herself, who’s still as sharp, charismatic & witty as ever. She relays anecdotes from her past without losing her youthful spirit.

And the stories she tells are fascinating & inspiring, because of her place in Philippine history. She has lived an unconventional life:  she ended up marrying a Filipino diplomat & living in the Philippines during the time of American occupation up to the present. Philippine history is humanized from her stories, from the country’s struggles during the World War II & its growth afterwards, with Jessie Lichauco as our main narrator. She tells stories about the vibrancy & hospitality of Filipinos when she first entered the country, & how Marcial & Jessie went on adventures around the world for eight years before they decided to settle down & have a family. She talks about surviving the brutality of war & her willingness to help those in need, even if it’s a Japanese soldier.

The movie shifts to her life as a philanthropist, mother, & a diplomat’s wife after discussing her life after World Wad II. She raised her children in a home with a loving, warm environment. She opened her home not just to foreign dignitaries, where she preferred to take them in order for them to know Filipinos better, but also to those in need.

All of these are intercut with archival footage & photographs, & interviews from historians like Carlos Celdran, World War II veterans, her children, her grandchildren & those she have helped, personally & through her foundation. It’s a conventional documentary for an unconventional figure & it mostly works. It keeps the movie focused around her & her work. However, it loses some of its steam once it talks about her life after the war, since the movie opens the floor to so many people. This decision makes sense, since it shows the effects of her kindness & philanthropy, but it loses Jessie Lichauco’s magnetic presence in the process.

It’s still a fascinating look at a woman who lived her life with the values mentioned in the title. It may have been coincidence this ended up as my 1st entry for #52FilmsByWomen, but I couldn’t think of a better way of starting my list with this lovely look at an inspiring woman whose humanity should be something to aspire to.

If you are interested to learn more about her or can’t watch this movie anywhere, this episode of CNN Philippines’ Profiles should suffice:

Guy with Internet Access’ Journey to #52FilmsByWomen 2017: An Introduction

As a film buff, one can never watch enough movies. I won’t seek out mediocre-to-bad movies regularly, but I’ll still watch it if it was presented to me. You can gain something from seeing terrible and hate-watching can be fun.

However, it’s easy to continue consuming the kinds of movie I want to watch. I tend to seek out movies with novel premises or those made by my favorite directors; like Wes Anderson or Antoinette Jadaone. It’s not a bad idea. I should watch movies I enjoy,  but it does create a movie diet that’s exclusive to my own tastes.

So as a way to expand my horizons, I’ll be taking the #52FilmsByWomen challenge. I will be watching 52 movies directed by women for the whole year. I will not count rewatches, but short films & films co-directed by a woman will count. The number is derived on the number of weeks in a year, but sadly I wouldn’t be able to watch a movie made by a woman every week. I will catch up before the year ends & that’s a promise!

Besides, this challenge is worth it. It’s a way for me to move away from the classic movie canon, which is a sausage party. I can watch movies focused on women’s stories made by women, humanizing women’s issues by putting a face on facts & statistics. I can also watch movies maligned for being “girly” like Filipino romantic comedies – our equivalent of superhero movies in terms of box-office revenue – which are mostly directed by women.

So I hope you all will join me in this journey, which will definitely be fun & insightful. I can’t wait to discover a movie I’ll preach to no end.