MMFF 2018: Otlum Looks Great But is Just as Dumb as Its Title

TL;DR: Otlum looks great, but it mucks up a decent idea by being lazy & derivative.

It’s hard to get over the fact that a movie called Otlum got included in the Metro Manila Film Festival in the godawful year of 2018, as if the MMFF executive committee is coming up with new ways to show how obnoxious & terrible this whole endeavor has become. For everyone who doesn’t speak Tagalog, Otlum is the Tagalog word for ‘ghost’ spelled backwards; which means its English title will probably be ‘Tsohg.’ This method of inverting a word or its syllables is described as tadbalik, & is used to create new Pinoy slang that will often be used by the hippest of youths. The problem is no one really says ‘otlum’ unless they’re referring to the movie or saying it ironically like what my cousin & I have been doing for the past few weeks. It reeks of trying to make ‘fetch’ happen. It’s not cool & it’s never gonna happen.

The same can be said for the popular clique at the center of this lackluster horror movie. Outside of their conventional beauty, the film doesn’t offer any compelling reason why people admire them at all. All of them are bland, amorphous cutouts whose sole characteristic is defined by their ties to the group, & they all talk like they were written by an adult trying & failing to capture how today’s youth talk & feel. Instead, it goes for the easy route of having them awkardly drop the word ‘hashtag’ in conversations & sigh explain what an ‘otlum’ is.

At least one part of the problem makes sense, since their connections aren’t formed by warmth or affection. They are basically a part of a fraternity founded by a smug asshole played by Jerome Ponce, where the only way to enter is through a series of punishing, embarrassing tests; one of them had to drink everyone else’s urine in order to be accepted to the group. He lords over everyone with his strict rules & his demand for absolute devotion to their brotherhood, & the rest of the group is chafing under his restrictions beneath their happy facade. It’s not allowed to date anyone within the group, yet there’s already a man & a woman hiding their romantic status from everyone. It doesn’t help one of the boys has a crush with the same woman, and he’s starting to suspect the truth behind the couple. One of them even starts questioning their humiliating rituals to enter their group. It’s unclear what they get out of the group but they’re still sticking it out for some reason; even if it makes them all slightly miserable.

This doesn’t stop Fred (Buboy Villar) from trying to force his way into the group. He doesn’t have anyone except for a distant mother (Irma Adlawan) who only bothers him for money he earns from repairing appliances, & a so-called friend (Kiray Celis) who always berates him whenever he’s around, so his need to befriend them is a somewhat understandable and completely misguided attempt at making connections. He becomes so desparate that at one point he bribes their affection with free food & drinks. Most of them have no intention in including him in the group, yet they continue to harass him as part of his “initiation.” As part of his final test, Fred has to stay inside an abandoned orphanage with a disturbing past for the whole night. When he finds out that they never intend to include him in the group anyway, he vows to take revenge. He kills himself & haunts them one by one with the help of a young ghost lurking in the same orphanage. Whatever fraught bonds the group has becomes even shakier. Some of them consult a paranormal investigator (John Estrada) to help them fight against Fred & his cohort. However, even the paranormal investigator himself has a grim past with the orphanage & now he is forced to face them in order to save the rest of the group.

It’s so hard to care about what happens though. Besides the awful dialogue & half-baked motivations from almost everyone, it’s just a nasty, boring slog of a movie. Outside of Fred, which is the film’s most sympathetic character, it’s a head-on plunge into awful human behavior without the wit, insight, or even a believable piece of humanity to make it bearable. This makes it harder to care for the group, which means there’s no tension when Fred starts terrorizing them. It also doesn’t help that its scares are done at a bare minimum, with nary a hint of inspiration or effort done to them. They feel so lifeless, like it’s an obligation for the film to deliver something scary when it doesn’t seem interested in doing so. Seeing a ghost run out of nowhere in plain sight doesn’t constitute a scare, nor does it grip anyone into thinking that something bad might happen to anyone.

It does have some of the best visuals for MMFF 2018, which is shocking considering the dire material. While none of it is mind-blowing, Jun Dalawis & Teejay Gonzales uses a ton of close-ups & medium shots that capture the insular, alienating world of the popular group & Fred’s forlorn existence. There’s a care & craft here that just couldn’t be seen on the script. This can be found in its best scene: Fred crying alone in his workspace after he was ditched by the popular clique, left drenched in the rain while wearing a formal suit. It’s framed by simple static shots that often obscure his face, with Buboy Villar finally revealing the totality of his anguish & disillusionment. It taps into what could’ve been a nuanced, acidic horror film about the toxic nature of fraternities & what makes them so attractive to people like Fred.

Instead, what we get is a rote horror movie filled with dumb, underwritten characters that’s hard to care for. At the very least, it is only 75 minutes long, so this isn’t as punishing as it should be. If only the film tried even harder to be good as much as it tried to sound cool, we could’ve gotten something more substantial.

Movie Review: JoshLia & Kris Aquino Liven Up I Love You, Hater’s Gimmicks

TL;DR: I Love You, Hater is a creaky, sweaty, but sweet romantic farce livened up by Joshua Garcia, Julia Barretto & Kris Aquino.

Fittingly for a sweet romantic farce, I Love You, Hater upholds truth & authenticity as the basis of one’s character as it comments on how these values are blurred in the modern world, which makes it ironic that it’s Star Cinema’s latest romantic comedy. The studio’s light, glossy offerings are enjoyable & primed to deliver the kilig audiences crave, but they’re often formulaic to a fault & the level of artifice surrounding these films turn them into mechanical & soulless products that makes it hard for me to fully embrace. While I Love You, Hater doesn’t avoid this problem completely, it delivers a fun film that gives everything audiences expect, while providing more depth that manages to pierce through the artifice.

Just like most farces, it begins with a couple of lies. Joko (Joshua Garcia) was tricked by an illegal recruiter who promised him a high-paying job in New York, but ditched him with his money in tow. He doesn’t want to go home empty-handed, especially since they need to pay off their huge debt, so he decides to stay in Metro Manila to work on a couple of odd jobs, stay in the apartment where his gay cousin & his boyfriend live, & pretend that he’s actually in New York. As the hidden, illegitimate daughter of a reputable lawyer, Zoey’s existence is a lie. Played by Julia Barretto, she is a smart, ambitious woman who pines for his father’s affections, fueled with the desire to achieve something huge for herself.

Both of them get a chance to uplift themselves when Sasha Imperial (Kris Aquino), a famous social media mogul who inspires others to live out their best selves while advertising products to her audience heavily inspired by the real Kris Aquino, needs a new assistant. Zoey is a huge fan of Sasha, & she quickly seizes on the opportunity to apply for her dream job. Joko was applying for a different job opening when he unwittingly ends up getting the job as Sasha’s assistant due to his knowledge of graphic design. When this news reaches Zoey, she protests since she thinks she’s more capable than him at the job & he’s not part of Sasha’s core demographic: women & gays. Not wanting to miss out on a high-paying job with numerous benefits & allowances, Joko lies & tells everyone that he’s actually gay. Faced with two highly qualified applicants, Sasha decides that they will both compete for the job. It’ll be hard for him to keep up the ruse, since he’s straight & has fallen in love with Zoey.

That’s a lot of story to get through, & unfortunately the film doesn’t have a tight handle with its plotting or themes. It tries to build a wacky setup for hijinks to ensue, flesh out the main trio, develop Joko & Zoey’s budding romance & explore how truth & lies affect everyone, which is ambitious, but the film suffocates underneath all of this weight. The plotting is creaky, forced & needlessly complicated at times, which is a consequence of its convoluted setup. This is more apparent in the first half, where the characters are pushed into ridiculous scenarios & it never feels natural; which, as already mentioned, is just ironic. It’s also hard to ignore how sweaty the story moves, which isn’t ideal for a farce.

It also doesn’t spend time fully diving into the nuances of its premise, preferring to just ground it all within the confines of the farce & continuously outlining that honesty is the best policy. It’s understandable, considering how bloated this whole movie is, but there’s so much more that needs to be explored it’s disappointing it took this route. It even affects the film’s final act, as it skips out on something messier in favor of following what the formula dictates.

But damn, if that doesn’t make the movie less fun to watch. While Joko & Zoey are shoved into tired & hacky scenarios, Joshua Garcia & Juila Barretto continue to prove their strengths as a love team by livening up the film with their entertaining performances & irresistible romantic chemistry. It’s more obvious once the film moves away from the farce & allow Zoey & Joko to be themselves. It also sidesteps its problematic premise by deriving humor out of Joko trying his best not to blow his cover & pretending he’s not in love with his rival, instead of emphasizing his “gayness” by vamping & lisping his way to a job; but there is a scene where Joko is harassed in a gay bar that’s played for a quick laugh that’s just awful.

Kris Aquino is unsurprisingly great playing a version of herself, but she’s not just stuck spewing out inspirational quotes & underlining the film’s themes. Sasha has her own arc about her senile father & while it drags the film’s pacing, it grounds Sasha as a character & gives Kris Aquino a dramatic arc to shine. Whatever convoluted mess the film is buried in, I Love You, Hater warmth manages to break through. You just have to put up with its gimmick to get there.