Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino 2017: Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B is an Excellent Horror Rom-Com You Shouldn’t Miss

TL;DR By combining a grounded romantic comedy with its own take on the manananggal mythos, Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B is an ambitious, intoxicating movie you shouldn’t miss.

Jewel (Ryza Cenon) is a lonely woman living by herself in an apartment. The closest thing she has to a friend is a pet turtle she calls Edward. One day, a man named Nico (Martin del Rosario) moves in at one of the units with his grandmother (Vangie Labalan). Both of them strike up a friendship that blossoms into something more.

But there’s a problem: Jewel is a manananggal, a vampire-like mythical creature in the Philippines, who haunts the night by splitting herself in half, leaving her torso behind to fly away & devour unborn fetuses from pregnant women or the hearts of unlucky humans. The movie’s unique spin on this iconic monster is she can walk among humans & has no control of her appetite. When it hits, she will undergo immense pain, & can only curb it temporarily by rubbing a special oil on her belly. Then, she will lurk night clubs looking for potential victims, lure them into having sex, kill her victim, & gorge on their remains to satisfy her hunger. To make sure no one suspects anything wrong, she leaves behind a piece of cardboard with this text written on it: “Wag tularan. Pusher ako” (Don’t imitate me. I’m a drug pusher.)

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You can already tell Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B (The Manananggal in Unit 23B) has lots on its mind just by reading the previous paragraphs. It delves in the ways female sexuality is feared & suppressed, & how Duterte’s drug war has allowed for malevolent forces to exploit broken systems for their own gains. The movie’s political & feminist subtext makes it thematically richer & surprisingly relevant.

Sure, it looks like a bunch of ideas thrown together, but it works thanks to the love story at its core. This is Prime Cruz & Jen Chuansu’s most ambitious effort to date, where their knack for crafting relatable characters engaging in amusing conversations is mixed horror with a sociopolitical bent. While Martin del Rosario & Ryza Cenon’s chemistry isn’t as strong as it should be, it doesn’t fall apart because they’re both have charming & the writing never fails them. Ryza Cenon is the absolute standout, revealing the multiple facets of Jewel’s personality & being with ease. They’re even backed up by the great Vangie Labalan, who makes the role of the eager, supportive grandmother endearing & funny instead of annoying.

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It also helps the movie sells the realities between Jewel’s double life, thanks to the top-notch production design, cinematography & musical choices. The veneer of normalcy is presented during the day, with drab greys highlighting the loneliness between the characters. Nico’s unit is a clean, organized, middle class home. Jewel’s unit has more ornate furnishings, but it still looks like an ordinary unit. But this movie, just like Jewel, comes out at night. That veneer is removed during the dark, giving way to stark, often neon-filled lighting that invites us to a world of mystery & terror that’s beyond us. Even Jewel’s unit reflects this, with neon red & green lights flooding the room, emphasizing Jewel’s duality. Since this is another Prime Cruz movie, the soundtrack & synth-heavy score is aces. It is evocative, memorable, & captures the isolation & danger the characters are caught in.

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The current cut we’re getting for Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino is different from the one delivered in the QCinema Film Festival 2016. Nico’s arc is kept to a bare minimum, almost removing any traces of his struggles as a man who stopped fighting his own battles, literally & metaphorically. While it does make for a leaner movie that ramps up its central tension quicker than before, Nico turns into a flatter character & his actions in the movie’s 2nd half lose some of its weight.

Even if that were the case, it doesn’t detract from the movie’s merits. Prime Cruz’s 2nd effort was, & still is a masterful blend of romantic comedy & horror, elevated by its ideas on female sexuality & the current political climate, wrapped in a charming package.

 

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Can We Still Be Friends? is Not The Movie Its Title Makes It Out To Be

TL;DR: The title may be misleading, but this is a charming romantic comedy honed in on the specific struggles of long-term relationship.

It really doesn’t.

This movie doesn’t tackle the hotly debated question in its title. Rather, it uses that idea to examine a relationship at a crossroads.

Digs & Sam, both played by Gerald Anderson & Arci Muñoz respectively, have been together for eight years, living in a condo unit together both of them are still paying for. Sam is an ambitious, hardworking creative getting passed over for promotions. She mostly takes care of her boyfriend Digs, an illustrator who often freelances. He’s a charming, irresponsible slacker who doesn’t even clean up their condo. Sam wants Digs to be more responsible by doing his fair share of house work, help her pay the bills more often, go on exciting dates, propose to her, & refill empty pitchers with water while Digs wants to maintain their seemingly idyllic life. They both love each other, as their playful banter & Digs’ ability to defuse the simmering tension between them shows, but they are reaching a breaking point. Both of them finally snap & decide to end their relationship.

Digs is supposed to stay at his friend’s house, but when Sam offered him to stay in the condo out of courtesy – since they both own the condo unit – he took her up on her offer. Not only that, both of them decided they should be friends, creating one of the most awkward living situations in Filipino cinema.

And this movie milks the awkwardness for every last drop. Both of them try their best to be friendly with each other, even if the wounds from their break up are still fresh. It doesn’t help that Sam clearly loves Digs but can’t put up with his immaturity, while Digs is hoping for an easy reconciliation. It’s how they end up ogling at each other when working out at their condo & going on awkward Tinder dates.

The movie might sound farcical, but it’s the exact opposite. It’s a grounded tale that asks what happens when one person in a relationship changes & one doesn’t, whether we can be patient enough to wait for our partner to overcome his/her shortcomings & if love is enough to solve these issues. This is one of Star Cinema’s toned down efforts. It is more attuned to the specifics of their relationship, where every interaction is the result of the years they’ve been together with all of the baggage it carries. This means it could focus on the messy emotions onscreen.

In fact, this feels more like a Prime Cruz movie with a Star Cinema budget. There’s the heavy focus on urban life, cramped living spaces & the alienation that’s packaged with the former – this time heightened by an ineffectual partner & the subsequent breakup – scored with a spare synth reminiscent of BP Valenzuela – who scored Cruz’s debut Sleepless – that’s atypical of Star Cinema. His movies are always gorgeous & emphasize the spaces between the characters & the environment, but it gets a step up with his move to a major studio, making it his sleekest film visually. One of the best scenes in the movie highlight these qualities, where Sam is suddenly a part of marriage proposal & she tries to dance away her loneliness.

And he’s blessed with actors who can pull off the material with ease. Gerald Anderson has the boy-next-door charm that can make the audience overlook Digs’ flaws, but he’s capable of carrying a dramatic scene when needed. Arci Muñoz has the meatier role & she’s completely astounding in it. She’s captures the confidence, longing & sadness of her character without betraying what makes it tick, & can make you laugh with a simple facial expression. And the chemistry they have together can warm up the coldest of hearts, which the movie exploits, since they don’t spend majority of the movie as a couple. It makes us want to root for them even more.

But it’s not without its hiccups. It has the typical third act problems Star Cinemas usually have when its movies are forced to come up with a happy ending. This movie mostly avoids these flaws without betraying the movie’s themes by sticking its focus on the characters, yet it’s still rushed, skipping a few beats in order to get them back together.

However, it doesn’t tarnish the movie at all. It’s a small flaw in one of the best movies released by Star Cinema in recent years, & another excellent movie from Prime Cruz. It may not answer whether exes can be friends, but it takes something relatable & cringy & uses it as a springboard for something specific & real, with a more than capable couple at the center. It’s not the movie we expected, but it is better for it.