Movie Review: Tayo sa Huling Buwan ng Taon & the Burdens of an Illicit Affair

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.

Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino 2017: Bar Boys Get a Passing Grade

TL;DR: At its best, Bar Boys captures the rich tapestry of college life through the unique lens of law school.

The titular Bar Boys are far from the drunk slackers you’d expect them to be. It refers to the four close friends who love hang out & play DOTA on internet cafes. All of them applied in the same law school, but only three of them were accepted. Erik (Carlo Aquino) struggles early on once he enters law school, which he feels guilty about since his father works very hard as a security guard just so he could study. Torran (Rocco Nacino) is doing much better than Eric, but he’s also alloting some of his time at a fraternity for the connections it could bring. Chris (Enzo Pineda) is a studious, intelligent man who comes from a rich family & receives good grades. But his life is far from perfect: he’s trying to juggle his studies, his relationship with his girlfriend, & trying to hide said relationship from his controlling father who wants him to study in America. The only one who didn’t make it is Joshua (Kean Cipirano), who only applied for law school to please his parents & would rather use this opportunity to become an actor.

From there, it follows Erik, Torran & Chris as they try their best to survive law school without tearing each other apart, especially since only few students get to graduate with a law degree. It does this by mixing the internal struggles of the main ensemble & broad, funny yet relatable moments familiar to those who went to college, or even studied; from the old student that easily stands out, terrifying professors, and trying your best not to get called on by the aforementioned professors during recitation. It’s similar to other nostalgic coming-of-age movies such as Bagets, but the uniqueness of its milieu & its specificity makes its stand out. The approach gives it a chance to flesh out the world of law school & its inhabitants; it doesn’t shy away from the more violent impulses of fraternities either. At its best, these two elements are combined with ease & reveal the rich tapestry of being a law student, but at its worst, it slows down an overstuffed movie & takes our attention away from the movie’s more interesting stories.

But the main ensemble keeps the whole movie from spinning in multiple directions. All of them are excellent, especially Carlo Aquino as the striving underachiever who slowly becomes jealous of his friends. The most memorable role comes from Odette Khan as the strict yet caring Justice Hernandez, who understands more than anyone that the path to becoming a lawyer is stressful, because of the responsibility they will yield in the future. Bar Boys is cognizant of this, even if they are faced with so much obstacles. Whatever happens, their friendship will carry them onto graduation & beyond.

Movie Review: Changing Partners Evokes Genuine Heartbreak Regardless of Gender

TL;DR: Changing Partners successfully transitions from the stage to the big screen, keeping its clever concept & wounded, beating heart intact.

Changing Partners tells the story of Alex & Cris. Alex is a middle-aged, ambitious, hardworking manager, while Cris is young, unemployed, & ambitious, who is trying to figure out what to do in life in between working through part-time jobs & side jobs. Both of them are in a loving May-December relationship & cohabitating, with Cris taking care of the house & Alex supporting both of them financially. It’s not a perfect union, though. Alex is jealous of Cris’ close friendship with Angel, while Cris can’t stand how controlling Alex is. Their problems slowly boil until it becomes inescapable.

However, this story isn’t told as plainly as possible. Based from a stage musical of the same name that had its successful run in the PETA Theater Center, Alex are both played by Agot Isidro & Jojit Lorenzo, & Cris are both played by Anna Luna & Sandino Martin, with Alex & Cris partnered with different performers in four different ways based on their gender: a cishet female Alex & a cishet male Cris, a cishet male Alex & a cishet female Cris, a cis gay Alex & a cis gay Cris, & a cis lesbian Alex & a cis lesbian Cris.

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It’s a complicated conceit, & thankfully the movie slowly eases the audience in to avoid confusion, but once it does, it becomes a fascinating way to show how universal love is, & how their age & gender reveals the different power dynamics their relationship has & how it affects them. Alex & Cris clearly love & strengthen each other, but they have issues they need to address, which is often muddled by the age gap between them.

It helps that the transition from the stage to the big screen is seamless. The theatrical version has found a clever way to show the shift in perspectives – some of which you can view here – it feels much more at home in a movie, where a simple shot reverse shot could instantly change which couple we’re watching. The entirety of the whole movie is set in the confines of Alex’s house, yet it’s never claustrophobic. The camera follows their ordinary lives simply & unobtrusively, making it alive & grounded at the same time. The songs match the material’s tone, opting for a naturalistic lyrics & singing that makes it easier for their emotions to come across.

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The main quartet of performers are the same people who acted in the stage version, & not only does it make the movie the easiest way to view the musical for those of us who missed out on its original run, but the actors already mastered the material. It really shows, with each of the actors & actresses delivering strong performances. The performances for each role are consistent as well, so it isn’t jarring when the movie shifts from one couple to another. Jojit Alonzo & Agot Isidro both show Alex’s jealousy & aggressive behavior without making them offputting, & Anna Luna & Sandino Martin reveal how lost Cris is in the relationship without making them pathetic. All of them display the flaws of two people who were never on the same footing in the first place.

Changing Partners reveals the universal truth that love has no boundaries. In the process of doing so, it shows the same can be said for heartbreak. Demonstrating this truth by using an ingenious conceit makes it easier to unveil its sincere, wounded heart.

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Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino 2017: Paglipay Proves Hugot Can Improve an Already Impressive Movie

TL;DR Paglipay (Crossing) is a perceptive tale about the lives of Aetas in Zambales & caught between tradition & modernity, spiced up with the addition of hugot.

Hugot in Filipino romantic movies has come a long way. By focusing on sober, observant depictions of heartbreak & longing – often sprinkled with a heavy dose of Filipino wit – it created a novel way to tell love stories. But what was once new is now a huge part of the Filipino cinema.

It’s not a bad thing. That’s just the way it goes. There are still great movies powered by hugot, like this year’s I’m Drunk, I Love You, but the distinct spark it gave off is now gone. It has become formulaic, & it doesn’t help some movies use it as a crutch to cover up a movie’s lack of emotional complexity.

However, Paglipay (Crossing) is here to reignite that spark. It’s not your ordinary hugot film, confirming you can push this genre forward to unexpected places.

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Specifically in the mountains of Zambales, where groups of Aetas live out ordinary lives. They are an indigenous group scattered across Luzon. The Aetas’ main source of livelihood was farming, but all of this changed thanks to the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991. It spewed out huge amounts of lahar, heavy volcanic debris flow that covered nearby lands, bringing utter destruction in the nearby houses & buildings. It was the cause of reported deaths of 847 people & displaced numerous locals from their homes. It also turned the fields infertile, since it becomes too hot when it’s sunny & muddy when it’s wet. Nowadays, Aetas have moved from their original homes, either choosing to farm in the mountains, work in neighboring mines, or working on a nearby town.

One of those Aetas is Atan (Garry Cabalic), a young man helping his father as a slash-and-burn farmer in the mountains. When he is seen hanging out with his childhood friend Ani (Joan dela Cruz), his father urges him to marry her, so shame wouldn’t be brought upon Ani & her family. To do this, he has to come up with a dowry of 20,000 pesos, so he decides to travel to a nearby town & earn money. That’s when he meets Rain (Anna Luna), a college student studying “pilaok,” mixed marriages between “kulot” (Aetas) & “unat” (urban folk). Atan guides Rain in her project, & slowly finds himself falling for her. But Rain has problems of her own, as her relationship with her boyfriend becoming rockier.

Atan finds himself conflicted between the heavily traditional Aeta culture & modern society, & the movie treats both with nuance. It delves on the lives of Aetas deeply, showing us their ordinary lives with utmost detail. The exposition rarely gets clunky, since it opts for a more observational tone. We are just seeing their life unfold through our eyes. The gorgeous visuals add a lot to deepen our understanding of the setting. Even better is it doesn’t become too reverent in its depiction of Aetas. Earning money is a struggle, climate change is making it harder to farm, & the heavy focus on tradition can be constricting; especially for women, who couldn’t even choose the person they want to marry. This is heavily contrasted with the intoxicating freedom of modern Filipino society, where gender roles aren’t as rigid. But that freedom can foster messiness, as shown in Rain’s romantic issues.

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It’s a fascinating exploration of the clash between two cultures, and it’s within this narrative where hugot is seamlessly integrated. The hugot comes from Rain’s agony over her boyfriend & Atan’s longing for Rain. There’s even Rain’s wacky best friend played by Marinella Sevidal. It improves Atan’s dilemma of choosing between your own cultural identity & its comforts for a more open yet chaotic way of life. It turns the hugot into something more complex & weighty, where the consequences isn’t just moving on from heartbreak & finding someone else to be with, but the kind of person you are going to be.

Casting Aetas is the obvious thing to do when producing a movie like this & they found talented actors to handle this material. Garry Cabalic captures Atan’s confusion & exhilaration of encountering loving someone different than you for the first time. Joan dela Cruz’s role as Ani has little screen time, but makes the most of what she’s given. Anna Luna’s role as Rain sells the emotional pain her character is going through. Marinella Sevidal plays the typical, supportive best friend, but she nails the role perfectly.

Paglipay is already an excellent observant tale about an Aeta caught between two worlds. But by adding hugot in the mix, it becomes a melancholic, heartbreaking movie. If we’re going to be stuck with hugot, we might as well get movies that expand what this burgeoning genre can do.

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