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: 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.

Movie Review: To Love Some Buddy is the Jolt Pinoy Rom-Coms Need Right Now

TL:DR: While To Love Some Buddy isn’t immune to the usual flaws of romantic comedies, it’s fresh, invigorating take on a staid premise.

One of the best things about the rise of hugot culture is it emboldened filmmakers to probe the intricacies of love & romance in an unpretentious manner – which centers almost entirely on heterosexual couples – without shying away from the pain & sorrow that often accompanies it through a simple aesthetic: heavy emphasis on grounded storytelling peppered with wit & melancholy. It completely reinvented the style & language of Filipino romantic comedies, resulting in a number of massively successful, critically acclaimed films like the recent Exes Baggage. However, this drive towards emotional authenticity caused the genre to lose their sense of breezy fun. It’s not a bad thing, since there has to be room for small, personal stories in our theaters, and it’s not like the genre turned into a humorless slog. But aside from a few exceptions, the genre became too tethered to our own reality, losing the vibrance the genre is known for.

That’s why To Love Some Buddy immediately stands out. It’s the jolt the genre needs right now, using a classic romantic comedy premise without losing what made the current crop of Filipino romantic comedies special. Faith (Maja Salvador) is suddenly reunited with her old college classmate Julius (Zanjoe Marudo) after she accidentally sent him a nude photo intended for her boyfriend. Their tense, awkward reunion becomes less so once Faith finds out he’s a skilled piano player who composes songs for his brother, a young singer on the verge of breaking out. Both of them quickly become best friends who love to goof around & support each other without any judgment whenever they’re stressed from their jobs & families. Zanjoe Marudo & Maja Salvador build a friendly, playful rapport that makes it easy to buy into their close bond; it will be familiar to anyone who gets pinched a lot by their best friend as a form of light teasing. It’s the kind of friendship that’s become too attached & insular their friends are starting to ask questions if they are dating.

Julius even proposes the idea of dating each other to Faith. Faith is concerned this might ruin their relationship, but Julius naively assures her this wouldn’t affect their friendship in any way & they could go back to being friends when it doesn’t work out. Faith agrees & the two of them are officially a couple. This decision alone puts To Love Some Buddy ahead most romantic comedies, since it doesn’t waste its time ruminating what might happen if two best friends start dating each other. Instead, it jumps right in, affording Jason Paul Laxamana an opportuniy to show how the couple’s expectations on their relationship have changed & the difficulty in adjusting to their new dynamic. It’s a fresh, insightful take on an old dilemma, & this alone would put the film neatly alongside other great Filipino romantic comedies made today.

However, Laxamana takes this premise & infuses the film with an edgy, impish playfulness he’s known for & adding levity rarely seen on romantic comedies of its ilk. It loves to pull the rug on the audience by throwing in twists that liven up the film. It isn’t afraid to go for broke either. The film has a cartoonish sense of humor backed up by strong, gorgeous visuals which gives a simple crass joke or any of its observational humor targeting certain aspects of Filipino culture the extra oomph it needs to get a bigger laugh. It even indulges in a wacky dream sequence where Faith’s jealousy gives way to an outrageous brawl. Not all of the jokes work, since there’s a sense it tries too hard to grab your attention, but it never becomes distracting that it drags the film down.

This makes it easier to swallow Faith & Julius’ antics, as their endearing flaws become unpleasant & blown up immensely. Maja Salvador’s Faith has a few similarities with her role as Carson from I’m Drunk, I Love You: she is loud, funny, & neurotic. However, Faith has more confidence & ambition than Carson, even if the career she ended up with isn’t what she planned, & Salvador gives Faith a nervous edge that can turn chilly in a flash. Zanjoe Marudo’s Julius is stubborn & comfortable on his own skin, unwilling to work on any gig that he fears will compromise his artistic integrity. Marudo doesn’t turn Julius into a slacker, & you can see him putting up with Faith’s demands until he explodes completely. It also helps that Marudo & Salvador are completely captivating in their roles & the film doesn’t let us forget the reasons for their admittedly human impulses. Even Phoebe Walker gets dragged in their fights as one of Julius’ exes who becomes his own sounding board for his problems with Faith. She stands out not just because this is one of her rare roles where she’s not sexualized, but she’s a warm presence throughout in the film who’s unwilling to tolerate Julius’ flaws; someone please give her a lead in a romantic comedy.

It’s not prone to the frequent weaknesses of the genre. The way it handles its third act is too pat, even if it is handled more smoothly thanks to Marudo & Salvador portraying their maturity that happened offscreen. It also attempts to rationalize toxic monogamy by positing that jealousy is something that should be tolerated in couples because it’s the only way to keep a relationship afloat. Regardless, To Love Some Buddy bridges the gap between the wacky hijinx that’s gone out of vogue in recent years & the sharp, insightful musings on love that has become the new standard of Filipino romantic comedies to create something novel & invigorating. Hopefully, more filmmakers take note & build off from its execution & push the genre into more exciting places.