After a series of excellent films, it felt wrong to not see right away the newest John Lloyd Cruz film, In My Life, its plot and the entire hullabaloo around it notwithstanding. The presence of Philippine movie legend Vilma Santos plus the choice of New York City (one of my most favorite places in the world) as the story’s backdrop really made it a really compelling film to watch. Once again, Star Cinema casts its filmmaking net wide and manages to produce a film that talks about your story, his struggles, her frustration, our victory, my life.
The film is happily unsettling in the sense that it has shatters prevailing stereotypes and mindsets about so many peoples, things, and happenings.
(Spoilers maybe in the movie review that follows below.)
It’s the story of Shirley (Vilma Santos), a public school librarian who is a creature of habit, uncomfortable with change, unyielding civil servant and mother to three children who have lives of their own. Her eldest daughter Dang (Dimples Romana) and her own family (Aaron Junatas and Cha-Cha of Goin Bulilit play her kids!) live with Shirley (whether they liked it or else); another daughter has moved to Australia with the help of their estranged father. Shirley’s only son Mark (Luis Manzano) has been sent to the US by his Philippine employer and has been living there for at least two years.
A series of family and property issues forces Shirley to go to the US to visit Mark. There she meets Noel (John Lloyd Cruz), Mark’s partner. Noel, Mark, and Shirley’s life together under one roof is rocky to say the least, despite Noel’s best efforts to make the new arrival feel welcome, and in the absence of Mark who is too immersed with work to be with his mom.
Soon, though, Noel wins the heart of Shirley. Along with their loyal friends (played by Vice Ganda, Nikki Valdez, and Rafael Rosell), and through her series of unfortunate workplace mishaps, Mark and Noel transform the uptight Shirley into a better version of herself. Shirley and Mark finally exorcise all shards that frayed their relationship; the cycle of unmet expectations and self-loathing, not helped by the fact that Mark is gay.
But their joy is cut short by a family tragedy that negated all the goodness that happened to Shirley’s life thus far. As heroines are wont to do, she emerges an even better version of herself, free from the shackles of the past, with her second wind fueled by the promise of life and love after the years of heartache she caused and endured.
If you will go see this movie in order to have your next big screen mega dose of John Lloyd Cruz, this movie may disappoint because this is, for all intents and purposes, a Vilma Santos film. The governor-celebrity-icon that Vilma is is entirely absent in the film; all I saw was Shirley the librarian. Like a perfect pendulum, she seamlessly swung from one emotion to another, taking the audience along with her for the ride. She cursed, she danced, she slapped, she cried. We cringed, we were awed, we gasped, we bawled. Her tears as well as her comedic skills were impeccably timed. I think Vilma gave life to Shirley’s character- who took herself too seriously- by NOT taking herself seriously. She was clearly swimming in uncharted acting waters but Vilma managed to come out a champ- bad hair, food splattered all over her and all.
While this is, for me, a Vilma Santos movie, John Lloyd’s reputation as one of the country’s finer actors is not the least bit tarnished as he got pitted against the formidable actress and a much, much, much more formidable role storyline. It was classic JLC- from the puppy dog eyes, to the careful but forceful delivery of lines, to the exuding of that aura that you-just-want-to-take-care-of-him-as-he-cried-like-a-little-boy. His acting was controlled, respectful, respectable and definitely not over the top. He gave Noel a believable humanity. In so doing he gave homosexual males a unique humanity, rising above and far removed from the usual ridiculous, criminal, depraved, and unfair portrayal of gay men. But how the audience reacted to JLC in the film is another matter.
Except for the picnic scene after his surgery, the pivotal part of the Mark and Shirley’s journey to reconciliation, Luis Manzano as Mark was, for me, miscast. He was VJ Luis throughout the film; Mark just couldn’t surface. (Nonie Buencamino, who played Noel’s dad, did a much better job in his almost-cameo role. He was present in one scene via a webcam conversation with JLC. And that scene was one of the film’s major moments.)
The almost-formulaic Star Cinema recipe as seen in One More Chance, You Changed My Life and A Very Special Love- that of a strong cast with fresh dialogue sprinkled with well-timed banter while packed in a tight visual field- lacked *something* this time.
Hilary the florist (Vice Ganda) made his presence felt onscreen, as did Dimples Romana as Mark’s elder sister Dang. The other characters- such as that of Nikki Valdez and Rafael Rosell- felt rather superfluous; maybe their talents were simply not maximized. Tirso Cruz III was there, I think.
The actors’ delivery of their lines made up for the script’s nondescript nature. Except for Vilma cursing, JLC dropping monosyllabic bombs like “babe” as Noel talked to Mark, and Hilary dissecting Shirley’s look via “yung salamin mo pang-librarian, yung damit mo pang-guidance counselor, yung height mo pang-estudyante,” I hardly remember any line worth regurgitating. Even Mark’s mantra for his mom- I want you to live- is not enough to rouse anyone from stupor if it were recommended to them to be their life’s game plan. The -oomph- just wasn’t there.
New York City provided an excellent backdrop for the story: its literal and figurative cold climate framed pretty well the challenges faced by émigrés. It’s a plus for the film that Mark and Noel felt believable as nouveau Nu Yoykoys, straddling life in America while remaining tethered to the Philippines. The movie captured the visual spectacle of many of the city’s landmarks which lure tourists. At the same time, however, these were juxtaposed with the reality faced by Filipinos overseas, as they juggle multiple jobs to make ends meet while trying to avoid deportation for overstaying their legal welcome in America.
Overall, the film is worth anyone’s time and money. Vilma and JLC carried the film squarely on their shoulders, making the most out of a thin script with their excellent performance. They gave life to a very deep, multilayered, and novel Philippine movie storyline that brought to the fore issues on parenting, love relationships, migration, and the American dream. They’ve had valiant help from Filipino and American co-stars (watch out for Eli) and The Big Apple. If it will turn into a classic like Vilma’s Anak or become iconic like JLC’s One More Chance- it remains to be seen. In its entirety, though, it’s a movie that is happily unsettling as it is entertaining- for the actors and moviegoers alike.
(Speaking of moviegoers: As expected, loyal fans came to the cinema in droves. Glorietta 4 Cinema 6’s 8pm screening last September 18th was standing room only. It felt good to be with fellow fans who endured the 45-minute queue prior to the screening to get into the cinema. As expected, the moviegoers collectively laughed at Vilma’s antics, gasped as the movie had its quick twists and turns, smirked at the shameless product placements.
What was weird though was the reaction of many in the audience during scenes when Noel and Mark shared tender moments together such as when they’d refer to each other as “Babe” or they held hands. Some of the people giggled during the scenes, some jeered at the two. I think they were so affected seeing their on-screen hero JLC in uncommon (but still respectable) cinematic moments with Luis that they exhibited nervous tics that reflected their bias against gay people. Scenes that were supposedly the highlights of the movie, the most dramatic scenes, were left unappreciated by the sneering crowd. They were disrespectful and distracting. Especially you loudmouth ladies who stood at the back row, with your comments that just showed your intolerant nature. Shhhh shhhh shhhh- shatap! Shatap kayong lahat!)