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
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.
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.