Back in the Day…
Back in 1996, a ratings war between the two top TV networks, ABS-CBN and GMA, in my country, the Philippines, was raging. It had been raging for quite some time then, but it had escalated into new heights as each network vied for the Filipino viewers’ attention. Each network tried to outdo each other in coming up with the more creative, or “in” or “hip” show. I’m a bit of a GMA person myself (probably also out of nostalgia for those “GMA Supershow” and “That’s Entertainment” days), although as my mother was an ABS-CBN person herself, I didn’t really get to watch a lot of GMA shows. Anyway, one of the good things that came out of that (ongoing) ratings war was the production of better programming that has not been equaled since (at least to my mind, judging from the kind of shows I see on TFC). A product of that time was the hit GMA teen show, T.G.I.S., to which the rival network pitched its own copycat teen show, “Gimik”. Anyway, a lot of now popular movie and TV actors have emerged from that lot, and though I tended to agree that GMA had better programming, I watched Gimik primarily as an excuse to see one of the kick-ass characters in the show, Melanie Suntay, played by Mylene Dizon (pictured below). Unfortunately I had to endure whole scenes of Judy Ann Santos and =gasp= Jolina Magdangal ( who has the dubious distinction of having a whole word coined after her: jologs – meaning tacky), as well, but I thought, it was a small price to pay to see Mylene Dizon every Saturday. ^^ Don’t ask me why, she certainly isn’t the most beautiful actress in the world, or in the Philippines for that matter, but she had that certain appeal, that X-factor, that made me think she might be big some day, or at least take the road less taken in terms of movie choices. I wasn’t entirely wrong. As Judy Ann Santos and company chose the path of least resistance, choosing to star in abominably atrocious Filipino films (what can I say? I’m a snob. ^^ And this is my blog, and I’ll blog if I want to, blog who I want to, blog if I want to!), she instead chose indie films – where the pay isn’t good, but the opportunities for creative explorations are prevalent.
Anyway, many films later, imagine my surprise when a Filipino lesbian film entitled “Rome and Juliet”, directed by theater-trained, first-time director Connie Macatuno is released and it starred the aforementioned Mylene Dizon, all grown-up and looking, well, hot, as a feisty, ferociously independent, successful entrepreneur on the verge of coming out after having slept with every available gorgeous man in Manila.
Anyway. Filipino lesbians are precocious, cautious and suspicious of any Filipino work of art, be it film, literature, music or painting, that claims to be a representation of the Filipino lesbian experience. Having been misrepresented and portrayed in countless stereotypical films, most famously for “Tatlo Magkasalo” (which, to this day, I cannot recall without cringing or grimacing – sometimes at the same time), we view any lesbian film with suspicion. When other gay and gay-friendly women started recommending this film with a dreamy, faraway look in their eye and much excitement in their voice, I wondered. And anticipated. And looked forward to this film. And tried, in vain, to look for a copy.
I finally got to watch it after I left the Philippines. It had come at an opportune time. I was homesick and longing for the familiar smells of home.
From the first scenes of Manila, the jeepneys, the tricycles, the cramped buses, the inexplicable, inordinate hordes of people spilling out of everywhere, rushing to god-knows-where, the cramped houses, sidewalk stalls, sari-sari stores, the mayhem, chaos, confusion that is the Philippines, that make us who we are, encapsulated in these progression of scenes, interspersed with voiceovers of poetry read by the main character, Juliet (Andrea del Rosario), I knew I was going to like this film. ^^ Hell, I could, quite literally, almost feel the heat and humidity.
This film revolves around the main characters Juliet (Andrea del Rosario) and Rome (Mylene Dizon). Juliet is a nice, dutiful, obedient, somewhat conservative kindergarten teacher engaged to be married to a rich, up-and-coming politician and into his very snobbish family. She dabbles in poetry and is not without a book with her, scribbling every day thoughts and dreams. Rome is a successful, independent, liberal entrepreneur with her own flower business who is the kind who enjoys intense physical relationships with men but find such relations wanting somehow. This bit kind of reminded me of “Imagine me and You”. There must be something about florists! What gets the ball rolling is when Juliet starts planning the wedding and her friend and co-teacher (who, we learn later on, is a closet lesbian herself), recommends Rome’s flower shop for the wedding flowers. She eventually ends up being Juliet’s wedding planner as well. They (for lack of a better word) click and for the better part of the movie, the filmmaker establishes and emphasizes this in each scene: that this isn’t some experimentation both women are having because they are bored with their heterosexual lives or becaue they have abusive boyfriends (that comes afterwards), but a serendipitious meeting of two people who were just destined to be together and who just happen to be of the same sex. What is emphasized here is that they get each other, in ways that their respective boyfriends don’t, and it shows in how Rome changes – paying more attention to Juliet and her needs, something she does not do with her boyfriends, arranging for Juliet to read her poetry, being there for her when Juliet’s family and romantic life begins to unravel as the pressures close in and constrict her, until they eventually cross from platonic into romantic territory.
Anyway, the storytelling up to this point is very engaging and you find yourself actually enjoying the scenes they have with each other.
But this film of course, is not without its faults. Most of it comes when we get to the second half of the film when the story unravels and director’s seemingly lack of imagination, or at least panic, runs wild here and she now didn’t know what to do with the film.
Hence, after what seems to be a carefully crafted, sensitive portrayal of the tender romance that develops between the two women, the film goes awry when Rome and Juliet are discovered taking a shower together by Juliet’s fiance, no less (note to self: The requisite, obligatory shower scene! Thousands of lesbian films later, where characters repeatedly keep getting caught making out or making love and still they never learn!). The director, I presume in the interest of realism, then goes to great lengths to elaborate on what happens when lesbians come out in the Philippines with quite tedious scenes/plot points reminiscent from a million and one Filipino dramatic films and TV shows: you get the huge scandal, the wedding called off, the bitter, madugo (bloody) coming out sabunutan between Juliet and her mom(classic!), confrontation between Juliet’s mom and her boyfriend’s mom (classic!dukha!dukha!), Juliet losing her job (which doesn’t make sense since Juliet’s co-teacher is a lesbian as well and she doesn’t get sacked), Juliet’s girlfriend being seduced by her now ex-fiance (huh? I know. But knowing the Filipino male ego – this might actually be plausible. Nothing is more horrible for a man than being scorned for a lesbian lover) Juliet’s father dying (classic!name me one Filipino drama without anyone dying!), Juliet being banned from the hospital (classic!), Juliet getting run over by a car and then subsequently falling into a coma (the ultimate classic plot line! Because when it rains it pours). Anyway, by this time I was resisting the urge to get a gun, bang my head on the wall and throw my computer out the window. Alright, we get it, being gay is catastrophic! It induces natural and unnatural disasters! (Contrary to what the writer/director believes, having your first girlfriend is pretty mundane and anti-climactic, really.).
And then what happens in the end boggles the mind: after everything that Juliet and Rome go through, Juliet’s mom now likes Rome (well, she would have to after her daughter gets run over, wouldn’t she?), Juliet’s ex-fiance calls a truce with Rome, and Juliet, after her nail-biting, maka-pigil hiningang coma, suddenly is up and about, commuting in the jeeps of Manila, to be with Rome.
The other beef I have with this film is the attention to unnecessary detail. Do I really need to see extensive shower scene shots (err..on second thought…)? Menstruation scenes? Scenes of underwear being shared, complete with pantyliner conversation? And why, oh why? do both these women who love each other have such scary, freakily long nails? I mean, I felt like telling the director, Oo na, I get it, they’re really, really, really close. I don’t need anymore elaborate, too-much-information scenes!
The director, Connie Macatuno, is theater-trained, so that makes you scratch your head sometimes. But anyway, aside from that, it was a good film.I like how the gender issue/s subtext are subtly interspersed with the gay storyline. Juliet as the epitome of Filipina submissiveness, torn between wanting to break free from her gender roles: daughter, sister, girlfriend, teacher – all nurturing roles, or just staying where she is.
I also liked the acting of the main characters. My most favorite scene from this film has to be the church scene, right after Rome realizes she is in love with Juliet, disappears for a few days and, mustering the courage to see her, confesses her love and readiness to commit to Juliet. That was the single most powerful scene for me. There was something so emotionally raw and yet restrained about that scene that alternately made me cringe and root for these lovers.
It has a strong supporting cast, led by Tessie Tomas (whom I almost didn’t recognize) and Glydel Mercado and a cool soundtrack provided by Wency Cornejo. Andrea del Rosario’s turn as Juliet is pretty nice to watch, and one could almost forget that she was a Viva Hot Babe singing novelty (read: baduy/jologs) songs like “Bulaklak” (Flower) (Sorry, I just had to mention that). This is what she used to do before she decided that if she wanted people to take her seriously, she should do indie films (hehe).
Aesthetically, structurally it is a good film, with substantial (almost too substantial!) characterization,and, since I’m a sucker for poetry and poetry readings, this film gets points for that as well. I think it’s pretty cool that Juliet’s poems change and seem better once she falls in love with Rome and I like what that implied: lesbian love makes one poetic. That lesbian love IS poetic.
Now, if the director hadn’t put in the second part of this film – this would have been perfect film. ^^