In America, a star quarterback falls in love with a shy, bookish girl. They serve as foils to each other, improve each other’s deficiencies, and eventually the quarterback miraculously picks up a book. In Japan, a boy and girl walk home together every day. Sometimes they stand in the rain under the same umbrella. Once, they even share an indirect kiss. Eventually, one of them confesses their love for the other and they finally engage in the shameless act of holding hands in public.
I’ve always been curious about the quintessential Filipino romance. In 1992, Assistant Secretary Tony Lambino of the Department of Finance sang what I believe to be the most popular and digestible depiction of young Pinoy love—a song later popularized by Parokya ni Edgar named “Harana.” Here is a boy surrounded by his friends, all of them in barongs and faded maongs, serenading a girl under the stars.
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But—at the risk of offending the generation that thinks the Stone Temple Pilots are still cool—perhaps that time has passed. The boy who originally sang “Harana” is now a bureaucrat. Chito Miranda is now married and with child. Who tells our love story now?
If, by chance, we’ve been unconsciously constructing a Frankenstein of the modern Filipino romance, then Cathy Garcia-Molina’s “Hello, Love, Goodbye,” may well be the monster’s bones.
Kathryn Bernardo is Joy Marie Fabregas, a hardworking underemployed domestic helper in Hong Kong saving money to bring her family to Canada, where she can practice and hone her skills as a licensed nurse. Alden Richards is Ethan del Rosario, a talented bartender who has motivation issues, and a deserved reputation for being the community dick. They are in Hong Kong—transients in a city of transience.
Of course, such a pitch would get thrown out by investors. We’ve seen this before. It’s Abroad Movie #177012. What’s the twist?
The twist isn’t so much in the characters, or the actors, or even the stale premise. The twist is how much of our real lives the movie lets in—economics, ambition, self-love. The media almost misunderstands millennials on purpose. We’re killing the fabric softener industry, the Italian exorcism industry, and the American Cheese industry. But even this angry millennial left the cinema saying: “This movie’s concerns were so millennial!” I suppose, more importantly, the concerns were real and Filipino.
The twist is how much of our real lives the movie lets in—economics, ambition, self-love.
One missing element that makes it more Filipino than most other movies: There is no wealthy patriarch in this film. No great fortune or shoe manufacturing empire to inherit. None of the favored Deus ex machinas of the Filipino romance movie. There is only the economic reality for many Filipinos—who can’t lose their jobs, who need extralegal “rakets,” who—oftentimes—can’t afford to fall in love, but fall in love anyway. “Need money, not a friend,” replies Joy to an Ethan who is making a move on her—slapping the audience in the face with a painful truth: More often than not, hindi tayo yayaman sa pag-ibig.
Apart from the economics of romance, there is also the raw ambition inherent to most young people. Joy is not just impoverished; she’s unfulfilled. She’s not looking for a Prince Charming—she wants a chance to prove herself. She wants to be good at something. “Sometimes I can hear my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I’m not living,” Jonathan Safran Foer once wrote. In the movie, Joy faces a most youthful dilemma: Stay for love and comfort, or leave and see what’s out there for her. It isn’t even a question of money, or happiness, or simple fulfillment—but identity. This single decision point gave the movie a flavor both uncommon and intriguing.
Joy faces a most youthful dilemma: Stay for love and comfort, or leave and see what’s out there for her.
It would be unfair to leave readers with the impression, though, that HLB is a movie focused solely on these concerns. It is still—at its core—a story about love. It’s hilarious, and is situated enough in the real world to deliver a credible message to viewers about what it means to love someone—and to love yourself—as young Filipinos.
Now, this might be my naivety speaking, but the movie is also a signal: The era of the karibal is over. We live in an age where the biggest challenge is to harmonize our partners’ love for us with their love for themselves. There is no blueprint for this. Sometimes it is impossible, too. Some of us are looking for something permanent, consistent, and comfortable. But some of us seek the exact opposite of that. The timing works, or it doesn’t.
We are all Joy and Ethan and Hong Kong, in a sense: sincere about wanting to love and be loved, but also impermanent, contractual, passing through. As for the modern Filipino romance, no one knows how it ends yet. But at the very least, we’ve begun writing a new story.