Pinoy Romcoms: Straight from the Garbage Can 
by Don Jaucian

In Every Breath U Take, Star Cinema has finally tossed the meat its audience has been rabidly anticipating for quite some time: Piolo Pascual’s abs. Given the right circumstances, the response should have been as enthusiastic as Angelica Panganiban’s squeals of joy upon grazing her hands on Piolo’s famed six-pack in the film (“Hindi ako sanay sa pandesal na walang palaman,” she tells Piolo) but with the dust of a controversy still hovering at the heels of the film, and hopefully the changing tastes of the filmgoing public, it collapsed into the local box office oblivion, raking in only P50.1M as of the May 30-Jun 3 weekend chart (according to Box Office Mojo).

The studio’s most recent film, Born to Love You, which starred the unlikely pair of Coco Martin and singer Angeline Quinto, isn’t looking too good as well. It has only grossed P29.7 M since its opening date (Star Cinema’s Unofficially Yours had a P77M opening weekend) and received harsher reviews compared to Every Breath U Take.

Teleseryes on film

For the last few years, Star Cinema’s films have been sounding like pitches from drunk people who have been watching too much teleseryes or ASAP 2012 (“Gurrrl, they should put Angeline Quinto and Coco Martin in one film! Mukhang cute!”). The recipe is continually acknowledged, even in ‘riskier’ films like In My Life (their first with a gay love team) and Unoficially Yours. It then becomes a flagship carrier of morals, no matter how ridiculous the premise of the film is. And admittedly, it sells. The country’s list of top-grossing local films is dominated by Star Cinema, the only studio powerful enough to combine film and television to its advantage. But with every decent film like My Amnesia GirlNasaan Ka Man, and One More Chance (arguably one of the last decade’s best local films), Star Cinema’s output continues to be dominated by spectacularly bad films.

The idea that these films continue to sell is grounded by a baffling reality. Audiences know what exactly they’re paying for: a regurgitated version of the last romcom that they saw. Yet, they still continue to give it a try, enticed by the actors starring in the film, hoping to pass a few hours by after watching the Hollywood releases of the week, or caving in to their girlfriend’s (or boyfriend’s) decision to select the film this time.

“The comfort food theory’s a good one,” says film critic Dodo Dayao. “Maybe these romcoms are like rice, they increase your serotonin. I’d settle for taste, that this is what they really like as movie buffs. I settle a bit grudgingly but what can you do?”

Cinema for the comatose

In this equation, both the audience and the studio share equal parts for the blame. “Masisisi natin [ang mga tao] for mindlessly tuning in to mind-numbing TV shows day in and day out, and in general for not putting a value on critical thinking,” says film producer Raymond Lee,. “Pero sila ba ang gumagawa ng quarter-baked (hindi lang half), regressive, and regurgitated romcoms? Sila ba ang nagdecide na hanggang d’yan lang ang kaya ng taste at comprehension ng Pinoy movie audience? Sila ba ang nagsusulong ng mga ideya gaya ng minsan lang darating sa buhay ng isang tao ang kanyang One True Love and the rest are mere mistakes and distractions; ang pumatol sa may asawa, p*ta, period; ang baklakatanggap-tanggap, but only if and when they prove themselves heroic.”

Lee, who’s behind some of the most important Filipino films of the past decade such as The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, has previously worked with Star Cinema in films like Anak, Tanging Yaman, and Milan; all of which were produced during the studio’s days when the story actually took center stage. “The studios used to try a lot harder and make much more interesting movies,” he explains. “They used to trust and respect writers and directors more. Now, they’re just afraid to rock their intermittently lucrative boat. Ang thinking nilakung kumu-quota sila sa karamihan at tiba-tiba sila sa ilan, hindi na rin masama.”

Signs of life

Despite these unsettling truths, it’s hard not to be optimistic about our local film industry. The success of Cinemalaya 7 has paved way for smaller films to cross over like Ang Babae sa Septic Tank, which was picked up for distribution by Star Cinema. The new media model also gave rise to the increased accessibility of cudgels of filmic wisdom courtesy of critics online like Philbert DyOggs Cruz and Dayao. But even with this powerful tool, Dayao isn’t still exactly sure that the critical mass can play a huge part in changing the status quo.

“Domestic critics, of which there are very few as it is, don’t have the same cachet as, say, foreign critics, but even they can’t keep Adam Sandler from making more movies, or stop Twilight films from not flopping. No amount of bad reviews is going to prevent the next Vice Ganda film from being a blockbuster,” he says.

A more discerning public

As for Lee, the public view on cinematic value has already changed and it’s the studios who haven’t kept up. As pirated DVDs unleash a torrent of quality films not usually accessible to the general public (best of the year bets such as Jeff Nichols’s Take Shelter and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia were sighted in the wild), they become an important element in shifting the public’s perspective on what great cinema is.

Maraming natatawa na sinisisi pa rin nila ang video piracy sa paglubog ng industriya kaysa sarili nilang kapalpakan,” he says. “Pero in a twisted way they are right. Piracy has liberated people from the tyranny of their mediocrity. There’s access to good films that used to be out of reach to everyone but the elite. So in a way mas tumaray na ang taste ng movie audience. Sa tingin mo, pag gumawa ang studios ng better researched, better written, more timely, insightful, and entertaining movies, hindi papasok ang audience? Baka maloka pati Hollywood.

At the end of the day, it will all boil down to freedom of choice: the choice of the audiences to turn away from the celluloid junk food, even Hollywood’s, and the studio’s choice to break away from the mold and take advantage of their position to usher in a new golden age of Philippine Cinema.

This article was originally published in The Philippine Star’s Supreme