By ATRIA PACAÑA
This is not a spoiler-free review.
“About Us But Not About Us” is a well-made psychological drama. That much is true. One can tell from the 10 out of 18 awards it has won in the Summer Metro Manila Film Festival awards night. But where it excels in technicality and form, it fails in milieu and content.
“About Us But Not About Us” follows a UP professor’s (Romnick Sarmenta’s Ericson or Eric), lunch date with a former student (Elijah Canlas’ Lancelot or Lance).
Maximizing the leads’ performances and consequently winning Best Actor and the Special Jury Prize, the two play the deceased off-screen character Marcus.
Jun Robles Lana’s screenplay and direction set the story into containment that reflects its backdrop of characters dealing with the effects and protocols of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s why Lana won Best Director.
Except, even with the limited locations and actors, the film stretches over feature length and not short length, employing camera techniques and writing sequences that sustain heightened tension, suggesting that the constraints are shot on purpose.
The IdeaFirst Company-produced film knows when to gatekeep and when to slowly unravel pieces of information through its dialogue, in scenes that are done in multiple long takes. The audience then hangs on to every word as if this is a mystery. And it works, given that it won Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Musical Score, Best Sound.
Although Eric and Lance are eating at a restaurant, the way that they exchange quips feels more like a chess match, deserving of that Best Production Design award.
This 2022 film’s Best Screenplay is clear in the use of language: English and Filipino playing two distinct parts when it comes to Eric and Lance’s socioeconomic backgrounds. Lance, the young ingenue, speaks mostly in Filipino, but occasionally speaks to Eric in English to try and level with him in age and experience, as Eric codeswitches between English and Filipino to indicate his middle class background, while Marcus is of the highest calibre — writing and speaking fully in English as he holds himself with sophistication from the mannerisms to the tone in his voice.
But even with the brilliance that also earned them Best Picture and Best Director, there exists a conflict here that is beyond the page, one that parallels the narrative’s backdrop of the University of the Philippines’ Creative Writing vs. Malikhaing Pagsulat departments. It is the “art for art’s sake” vs. the “art for life’s sake” argument.
Should art only be judged for its purely formalistic and artistic merit, or are artists obligated to advocate for a particular message when creating?
The film tries to question that as well, but it doesn’t bother sticking to a definite answer. For instance, in the third act, there’s something to be said about the characters wanting to write “the greatest novel in Filipino” but speaking in straight English as they say it. It ends up appearing insubstantial and performative.
One could also argue that this film is representative of the modern sentiment that not all LGBTQ+ stories have to be sanitized for the media, or for the wider audiences. Queer people can be just as deeply flawed as straight people, that stories that dive into their psyches are valid. The community has many facets, and the truth about representation is that: it needs to tell all fronts. Not all LGBTQ+ media can be Netflix’s Heartstopper with the cute teenagers holding hands and the wholesome tone of happy endings. Some films tell the ugliness of a person, and these films typically trust the audience’s intelligence, that it assumes the watcher has the media literacy to understand that “Oh, this movie doesn’t necessarily represent the community as a whole, but instead humanizes the people for having these massive scars.”
The revelation in the ending that Lance has been plotting against Eric and Marcus the whole time is at least earned. Lance as a young gay man can be just as elusive, manipulative, and cunning as straight people, and that it’s not a matter of sexuality whether someone has what kind of morality.
But while one can make that argument, filmmakers — queer or straight — are still obligated to be clear with what message they intend to tell at the end of the day.
What does it say for audiences to finish “About Us But Not About Us” having witnessed that the violence inflicted on Lance was not met with justice and redemption, but with vengeance? What does it mean for the power dynamic between the professor and the student to be turned on its head but without proper redemption?
And if the answers are “to subvert the typical expectation of an LGBT movie,” well — the answers are conscientious but flat at best, and muddy that pats itself on the back at worst.
Score: 2.5 half-eaten apple pies out of 5.