Nails, thorns and all: while hugot doesn't always have to come from a place of heartbreak, its more popular examples deal with failed relationships. Art by Paul Eric Roca
Culture Spotlight

That thing called ‘hugot’: Looking back on the decade that gave ache a name

From Antoinette Jadaone’s That Thing Called Tadhana to the music of Ben&Ben — how a decade of art was shaped by hugot culture
Alfonso Manalastas | Dec 31 2019

In the 2019 hit song “Kathang Isip,” indie folk band Ben&Ben writes, “Pero kahit sa’n man lumingon / Nasulyapan ang kahapon / At sa aking bawat paghinga / Ikaw ang nasa isip ko, sinta.”

Sitting at the tail-end of a packed movie house, I join an audience at the film premiere of Jade Castro’s LSS (starring Khalil Ramos and Gabbi Garcia) where the nine-piece band is prominently featured. As the film credits roll, the band assembles in front of the screen and treats us moviegoers to a live performance, capping the night off with their hit single.

More on The Last 10 Years:

Ben&Ben: Writing lines that are as hugot as hugot can be.

As with any live Ben&Ben performance, this one went accompanied by a slew of second voices echoing from the audience. Not a rupture but a solemn hum, the line enters the song at the second half of the bridge—immediately after the big “Tatakbo papalayo / Kakalimutan ang lahat” moment that ends with a fermata where Paolo and Miguel carries the note through to the quieter second half.

It signals a major footprint for a song that waxes poetic all throughout, but chooses to go for the jugular in its hushed, seemingly mundane parts.

In just a few words, the band is able to take us through the inescapability of desire, the fallibility of time, and the absurdity of the imagination, putting heartache in a unique place that defies human stamina. “At sa aking bawat paghinga / Ikaw ang nasa isip ko, sinta,” sings the crowd.

By contemporary definition, these lines are as hugot as hugot can be.

This isn’t new for a country where “hugot” as we know it is entrenched in many aspects of consumable art: from our kundiman traditions, to our affinity for Cathy Garcia-Molina films, and even to the emergence of Filipino spoken word, noteworthy for being a bastion of everything hugot.

This isn’t new for a country where “hugot” as we know it is entrenched in many aspects of consumable art: from our kundiman traditions, to our affinity for Cathy Garcia-Molina films

In many ways, there is nothing thematically original about the narrative being rendered by the song, too. It posits the same concept of longing, interrogates the same concept of romantic delusion, and concludes with the same sense of surrender found in many existing texts.

What makes it a defining song to me isn’t so much that it attempts to be new and original in the kind of storytelling it offers. It’s the fact that unlike previous decades, the 2010s has appointed a name to it, thereby enshrining new meaning as well.


The popular appeal of hugot

Halfway through the decade, we saw two things happen: the release of Antoinette Jadaone’s critical and commercial success, That Thing Called Tadhana (2014), and the viral status of Juan Miguel Severo’s spoken word piece, Ang Huling Tula Na Isusulat Ko Para Sa ‘Yo.

Interestingly, Jadaone and Severo met in college where they were both part of the same film org in UP, and have already worked together in various projects. Suffice it to say that belonging to common circles and being nurtured in spaces that were, more or less, informed by similar artistic sensibilities, the two found themselves at the frontline of the same phenomenon.

Angelica Panganiban and JM de Guzman in "That Thing Called Tadhana" offered a self-aware form of storytelling that resonates with an audience already adept in the language of hugot.

That Thing Called Tadhana is a love letter to the abandoned, told in the form of a travelogue that spans Rome, Manila, Baguio, Sagada, and back to Manila. In the movie, Mace (Angelica Panganiban) had just broken up with her boyfriend in Rome, while Anthony (JM de Guzman) had just visited the European city following his mother’s death.

The two form an unlikely friendship that takes them to various parts of Luzon, with their journey peppered with multiple emotional breakdowns from Panganiban’s character who, in one of her stark monologues, delivers: “Hindi. Na. Kita. Mahal. Makakaalis. Ka. Na. Seven words. Yung eight years namin, kinaya niyang tapusin in seven words.”

Just like the hit Ben&Ben song, the movie doesn’t necessarily offer a story that we hadn’t already heard of. What both materials achieve instead is a fresh, and often self-aware form of storytelling that resonates with an audience already adept in the language of hugot.

We had given it a name. We had developed a certain deftness in the use of the language. We no longer had to rely on sheer impulse when the need to implore it arrived, which also meant that hugot enjoyed a certain democracy often absent in other, more allegedly sacrosanct narrative styles.

Wattpad writers were writing hugot lines in free websites, giving birth to cinematic adaptations like Cathy Garcia-Molina’s She’s Dating the Gangster (2014). Insta-poets, for their part, were dropping hugot-charged haikus here and there.

Spoken word artist Juan Miguel Severo

The same freedom is implored Severo’s spoken word piece, which he originally wrote and performed for open mic events at the now defunct Sev’s café before his penultimate rise to commercial success. In the piece, he writes “Patawarin mo ako sa hindi ko pagbitiw / At patatawarin kita sa hindi mo pagkapit,” a line frequently met by flurries of oohs and ahhs from those circling the stage.

It comes as no surprise then that the rapid popularity of spoken word as an art form soon followed. The piece’s virality was seen by many as an invitation to this new, alternative platform where people can exhaust their own stories, often of heartache, to a crowd of strangers listening on.

Open mic stages are free for anyone willing to brave them, and require virtually no institutional endorsement. In the same fashion, the likes of Ben&Ben and Jadaone also carved their roots in small, independent spaces that are arguably more supportive towards alternative voices.

Ben&Ben were playing gigs at small spots across the metro like Route 196 and Saguijo, while back then, Jadaone’s films have only been largely screened at independent film festivals like Cinema One where That Thing Called Tadhana made its premiere.

In less than a decade’s time, hugot became a staple across various art forms, influencing artistic production, and coaxing the approval of even mainstream sensibilities (not that mainstream approval is the point).


Ano ang pinaghuhugutan mo?

The word “hugot” can be loosely translated as a means of drawing out or pulling out. To hugot, in Filipino slang, is to draw a feeling out of a certain, often negotiated, place or memory. In one of our conversations, Severo contends that this does not always have to be a place of heartache.

He argues that when Andres Bonifacio, for example, while speaking in the context of the revolution, wrote: “Aling pag-ibig pa ang hihigit kaya sa pagkadalisay at pagkadakila gaya ng pag-ibig sa tinubuang lupa? Aling pag-ibig pa? Wala na nga, wala,” he must have drawn out feelings from a certain place that wasn’t necessarily laced with romantic despair, but was still, by all means, as hugot as it gets.

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And who gets to say it isn’t when the rudimentary qualities of what’s “hugot-worthy” are all present? The grandness of the statement, the certainty in its grief, the hyperbolic comparative between love for nation and love for anything else—all of these make for the perfect sampling of a hugot-induced experience.

Which is to say, long before we have accepted hugot as a concept of heartache or as an artistic subgenre, the everyday Filipino were already using it in telling their stories, no matter what those stories are.

Long before we have accepted hugot as a concept of heartache or as an artistic subgenre, the everyday Filipino were already using it in telling their stories.

Today, hugot has taken on a unique form, often as a punchline to a dramatic text and usually written within the context of failed love. But this does not presuppose that stories written about other material and immaterial grievances do not come from a place of ache, too. They can be as much of a hugot story as their romantically tragic counterparts.

In fact, I am inclined to believe that the hugot we know now has merely evolved into an all-encompassing term for that which is burdened by ache, one that can only be liberated by drawing out the weight that causes the ache. In this sense, there must be liberation in hugot, too, and this must be why the everyday Filipino is so instinctively drawn to it.


Hugot as subtext

At the decade’s onset, various trailblazers have already set the pace for our collective consumption of the hugot culture. UDD, formerly known as Up Dharma Down, released their hit song “Tadhana” in 2012. Cathy Garcia-Molina’s One More Chance (2007) found cult status through its new breed of viewers who only got to see the film years after it came out. On social media, hugot lines were being plastered over VSCO filtered photos by some of the most influential personalities online.

All of these expressions and the seemingly orchestrated nature of how they sprouted across all aspects of pop culture collectively rendered a hugot-filled decade for the Filipino audiences.

Maja Salvador and Paulo Avelino "I'm Drunk I Love You"

From movies like JP Habac’s I’m Drunk I Love You (2017) that boasts its own plethora of gritty lines, to its unapparent counterpart in Giancarlo Abrahan’s Dagitab (2014) whose highlight, to me, is Eula Valdez’ beach-side monologue about carrying a void forever. Both films dealt with their own versions of despair, using their own calculated intensities in punctuating grief.

In 2013, pop rock band Ang Bandang Shirley released their album, Tama Na Ang Drama, featuring popular singles “Nakauwi Na” and “Di Na Babalik.” Younger artists whose bodies of work I admire — Munimuni, Coeli, and Rice Lucido—all loaded their efforts with contemporary takes on longing, losing, and loving no matter what.

We had given it a name. We had developed a certain deftness in the use of the language. We no longer had to rely on sheer impulse when the need to implore it arrived

Pre-defined by our complex relationship with tragic love stories beginning with age-old myths and lore such as that of Alunsina and Tungkung Langit, the Filipino artist has always been drawn to concepts of failed love and the constant desire to pursue it regardless of its tragedies. And with the advent of technology, our propensity to ache as a people is only magnified by how the internet age democratized content-creation; how we are constantly goaded into sharing our personal triumphs and traumas, preferably with the use of sharp wit and a capable tongue.

Left and right, hugot in all its forms—whether about heartache for a desired being, or heartache for the nation in which the desired being resides—permeated different corners of pop culture. Even in the fact that virtually none of the works listed above were one-dimensionally about aching, they always had somewhere to draw from: a place, a memory, a philosophy, a feeling.

Hugot, by all accounts, was never the point. It is merely the vehicle with which the point is brought across. And while it is unclear how it has shaped our decade, for good or for bad, there is an unquestionable earnestness to it that is definitive of a generation that knows what it’s like to tell stories, to create art, and to ache.