Friday, November 15, 2019

Tayo Muna Habang Hindi Pa Tayo (Dating Not Dating, Denise O'Hara, 2019)

Should I stay or should I go?

Denise O'Hara's Mamang--part Gothic character study, part memory play, part comedy of accommodation--was one of the best films of 2018, I thought. Her sophomore effort Tayo Muna Habang Hindi Pa Tayo (Dating Not Dating) is at first glance a slick exercise in the Philippines' most popular genre of the moment (the romcom) at second glance develops (nonfans might say 'devolves') into something messier more troubling.

Talk about troubling or (rather) troublesome, there's the question of the film title's equivalent in English: 'tayo muna' is colloquial for 'we're an item' or alternately 'we're dating'--hence my stab at translation. I also like Placeholder--captures the title's whole idea, adding at the same time the rather insulting suggestion of being something convenient, utilitarian--a temporary duct tape patch till something better or at least more permanent comes along.

(As it turns out the title's official translation is Waiting to Begin--accurate, but doesn't really do anything for me)  

Which is what Carlo (JC Santos) wants. He's been burned before he's leery of being hurt again. Carlo's an independent contractor who collaborates on occasion with ad executive Alex (Jane Oineza) and their work relationship--he comes up with the ideas she the logistics--has escalated into casual flirtation escalated further into a physical relationship with suggestions of commitment.

More or less. Trouble comes when Alex nudges Carlo into a DTR talk and doesn't like what she hears; the rest of the film is the back-and-forth between the two as they deal with the fallout.

Simple yet not simple, not really. O'Hara starts the film in media res, cutting between a lonely Carlo pining away in his apartment (he turns a stray cockroach into a major domestic crisis) and a nervous Alex trying to encourage fitness fanatic Bernard (Victor Sy) into seducing her (more like encourage Bernard's peacock display of physical prowess while she struggles to act interested). O'Hara cuts back and forth between the budding relationship and its later wilt, a few of the transitions cleverly staged (Alex shoving Carlo's things into a trash bag and pounding on his door; cut to inside the apartment (only it's hers) and Alex waking up in bed beside Carlo realizing she's late for work; Alex rushing out having second thoughts running back into the apartment (only it's his) to dump the trash bag's contents on the floor). We see both sides of the relationship (its development its decay) their unhappiness at being without each other their unhappiness at being with each other and we wonder: what's going on? Why don't they just make up their minds and decide?

Which turns out to be what the film's all about: the difficulty in defining a relationship between two complex human beings. No this isn't as smoothly paced and plotted as a romcom, its vague frustrating refusal to commit to an emotional tone or genre (Is it a romcom? A breakup movie? A comedy of indecision a tragedy of unfulfillment?) being its real subject. Even the leads while showing chemistry don't quite gel perfectly--Oineza a healthy plump partridge of a woman not afraid to bark out loud in laughter or chow down heartily on a meal, Santos a wistful daydream of a man who delivers comic lines in a wry whisper--and that's all right, the raspy incompatibility of two people rubbing against each other trying to smooth out a compromise.  

The film's not perfect: I understand industry folks' tendency to turn to advertising when they want to give their characters a profession--it's their bread and butter too, the day job that allows them to maintain their very expensive mistress, cinema--but I'm not a fan of the trope. The couple seems to operate in a social vacuum--we see them striding through an office with people in the background, extras with no dialogue looking on the quarreling lovers with barely any curiosity (could be a stylization thing--in Carlo and Alex's world only they have any real existence; on the other hand a best friend or co-worker could've sharpened the story added texture to the relationship). Santos gives the funnier performance but Oineza is an equally capable comedienne (her opening scenes with Bernard the bodybuilder, where she can barely bring herself to follow the man's relentless narcissist bragging, are hilarious)--too bad she mostly ends up as straight man to Santos' punchlines. 

Maybe my biggest plaint is the constant need to DTR anything at all. Discussing a relationship sounds less like allowing a breath of fresh air in your life more like the wheezing of a terminal ward patient; you wonder if maybe younger folks are talking the fun out of dating (What can I say? I'm a fan of silent cinema). In my time we just went out without worrying if this is a thing or not, should it be, and why--but don't mind me; I'm probably on the wrong side of history and this is probably a generational thing. 

I do like quite a few of the director's touches: how without much fuss she has Alex live in financial independence, with a more prosperous-looking apartment; how Alex is Carlo's boss without need to hide their relationship or even feel embarrassed (a possible professional ethics issue?); how Carlo prepares Alex's packed lunch and coffee thermos even tucks in her shirt before she runs out the door--baby steps not major steps forward and probably not the first time depicted onscreen but but but

O'Hara's second feature doesn't have the impact of her first, but then she doesn't have a story whole and complete (between her uncle and her grandmother) waiting for translation to the big screen. Has a different kind of story, and storytelling approach (jumping back and forth in time, as opposed to in and out of reality); has a less polished more understated look. For all its differences does share one virtue: whets one's appetite to see what she might do with her next film.

First published in Businessworld 11.15.19

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