At the onset, having a light romance / romantic-comedy as part of the Metro Manila Film Festival’s self-proclaimed “change” and “revolution” was a good thing: it tells us that they weren’t deciding against certain genres just because these are considered “pop” and “therefore shallow” — it is after all easy to presume that all love stories are about the happy endings, and one can spot the formula from a mile away.
But even formula has allowed for an amount of creativity in the rom-com through the years (1) and it is with this sense of how the genre has evolved that one was hopeful about Vince And Kath And James (directed by Theodore Boborol, written by Daisy G. Cayanan, Kim R. Noromor, Anjanette M. Haw), because there is so much more to the rom-com now than just lead stars with chemistry: there is good writing and well-threshed out situations, the specificity of social class and gender politics.
Alas, this film had none of the above, and it’s really a measure of the MMFF selection committee’s limited knowledge of the romance as genre that it allowed for this film’s inclusion.
Kath is the family’s handyman and mechanic, a reaction to being abandoned by her father, and the mother’s decision to be crippled by the loss. Yet it was unclear what exactly her financial crisis was: there’s a sense that she needed to work (at her Uncle’s talyer) to help out her mother, and yet they lived in a fancy house in a subdivision. The school she goes to seems like a public college, and yet in it she has a classmate like James who drives a P2-million-peso car, and who lives in a mansion with Inglesero parents. James “wealth” is measured against the poverty of Vince who, for reasons that are as superficial as an angry stepfather, has been given up by his mother and left to fend for himself as an “adopted son” of James’s parents. Vince’s utang-na-loob of course dictates that he save James’s hide way too often, and puts him at the mercy of his cousin’s whims. And of course they both like Kath.
One can forgive that this is exactly the same crisis as that in Crazy Beautiful You, the 2015 hit of Kathniel. But what is unacceptable is how little thought and effort was put into actually making these characters more complex than cardboard cutouts of their stereotypes. It was a waste of the credible acting (Julia Barretto and Joshua Garcia), and whatever unique characteristics Kath and Vince had — Kath was a welcome romantic female lead who loves to eat, speaks with her mouth full, and was a loudmouth, too.
Unsurprisingly, instead of running with the empowering image of the girl who fixes cars, who doesn’t mind getting dirty, and takes pride in doing things herself, Kath is in the end turned into a sex object, sweating under the hood of a car, and in slow motion becoming the pin-up girl of Vince’s fantasies.
She gets it worse from James. He who was a neglectful boyfriend, who barely talked to Kath in the course of their relationship, abandoning her in her time of need, and yet wanting her to be around so that she might be paraded in front of his friends. This same guy, fueled by jealousy, attempts to rape Kath. When Vince barges into the room to stop him, James turns the table at Kath, asserting that he had only tried to rape her so that he might know the truth.
Not only did James justify his actions via his jealousy, this climax actually ends with Kath apologizing for having fallen in love with someone else — like she had not just been physically assaulted by the boy accusing her of infidelity. And of course there are no apologies from the male abuser, because that’s how things roll in Vince And Kath And James.
To say that this film is a million steps back in the making of romantic films in this country, of rom-coms and teenage romances both, would be an understatement. One expected some playfulness with formula (as we have seen in the past two MMFFs), and instead we got formula that was badly-played out, with characters thoughtlessly put together, and situations that were far from being fleshed out.
For an MMFF that promised revolution, the Selection and Executive Committees will be hard put to defend this film as quality, as better, or as an improvement. Certainly showing the next generation of girls that it’s okay for a boyfriend to force you to have sex should have already disqualified this film from any film festival (if not from exhibition altogether).
And with the the Cinema Evaluation Board giving this movie an A as well, one can only surmise that apparently rape culture is something that the film industry does not mind encouraging.
How’s that for audience development? Also: shame on you Star Cinema — we all know you can do better than this. ***
(1) A creativity that might be traced back to the early 2000s, from Joyce Jimenez light romances (Maryo de los Reyes-Jun Lana’s Ano Bang Meron Ka? and I Think I’m In Love, Joey Reyes’s Narinig Mo Na Ba Ang L8est?), to Piolo Pascual’s non-JudyAnn films (I Think I’m In Love, Joey Reyes-Antonio Sison’s 9 Mornings, Gilbert Perez-Katrina Flores’s Dreamboy). Across the 2000s were also Regine Velasquez’s romantic-comedies, Judy Ann Santos’s films for the younger set.
All these were precursors to the rom-com as we know it, as made (in)famous by Toni Gonzaga with Star Cinema which has made the formula more and more obvious — and it barely has anything to do with the stories at this point. Instead it is about picking a bankable actress, and picking believable roles for her to play, alongside the requisite every-leading man (Piolo, Sam, John Lloyd, Derek). This was the formula for the Regine films, and it is a formula that has had Sarah Geronimo, and lately, Jennylyn Mercado raking it in with their rom-coms.
There is of course a lot here that is the same: there are a fixed number of directions a romantic relationship can take after all, and we’re really just working with the levels of difficulty in keeping things together given a set of variables. Yet there is also the fact that ever since Judy Ann turned the tables at objectifying Piolo in ‘Til There Was You, the rom-com in these shores have consistently tried to refuse the narrative of the woman as mere conquest, of her body as mere site of male struggle. That is a critical point to be made in favor of rom-coms, given its popularity as a genre, given the audience it has.