Critic After Dark

Tayo Muna Habang Hindi Pa Tayo
Directed by Denise O’Hara

DENISE O’HARA’S Mamang — part Gothic character study, part memory play, part comedy of accommodation — was one of the best films of 2018, I thought. Her sophomore effort Tayo Muna Habang Hindi Pa Tayo (Dating Not Dating) is at first glance a slick exercise in the Philippines’ most popular genre of the moment (the romcom) that at second glance develops (nonfans might say “devolves”) into something messier, more troubling.

Talk about troubling or (rather) troublesome, there’s the question of film title: “tayo muna” is colloquial for “we’re an item” or alternately “we’re dating” — hence my stab at translation. I also like “placeholder” as a translation — captures the title’s whole idea, adding at the same time the rather insulting suggestion of being something convenient, utilitarian — a temporary duct tape patch till something better or at least more permanent comes along.

(As it turns out, the title’s official translation is Waiting to Begin — accurate, but doesn’t really do anything for me)

Which is what Carlo (JC Santos) wants. He’s been burned before, he’s leery of being hurt again. Carlo’s an independent contractor who collaborates on occasion with ad executive Alex (Jane Oineza) and their work relationship — he comes up with the ideas, she the logistics — has developed into casual flirtation, developed in turn to a physical relationship with suggestions of commitment.

More or less. Trouble comes when Alex nudges Carlo into a DTR talk and doesn’t like what she hears; the rest of the film is the back-and-forth between the two as they deal with the fallout.

As simple as that, except it isn’t, not really. O’Hara starts the film in media res, cutting between a lonely Carlo pining away in his apartment (he turns a stray cockroach into a major domestic crisis) and a nervous Alex trying to encourage fitness fanatic Bernard (Victor Sy) into seducing her (more like encourage Bernard’s peacock display of physical prowess while she struggles to act interested). O’Hara cuts back and forth between the budding relationship and its later wilt, a few of the transitions cleverly staged (Alex delivering Carlo’s things in a trash bag, pounding on his door; cut to inside the apartment [only it’s hers] waking up beside Carlo in bed realizing she’s late for work; rushing out, having second thoughts, turning to charge back in the apartment [only it’s his] to dump the trash bag on the floor). We see both sides of the relationship (its development, its decay), their unhappiness at being without each other, their unhappiness at being with each other, and we wonder: What’s going on? Why don’t they just make up their minds and decide?

Which turns out to be what the film’s about after all: the difficulty in defining a relationship between two complex human beings. No, this isn’t as smoothly paced and plotted as a romcom, its vague frustrating refusal to commit one way or another (Is it a romcom? A breakup movie? A comedy of indecision or a tragedy of unfulfillment?) being its real subject. Even the leads while showing chemistry don’t quite gel perfectly — Oineza a healthy plump partridge of a woman not afraid to bark out laughing or chow down heartily on a meal, Santos a wistful daydream of a man who delivers comic lines in a wry whisper — and that’s all right, the raspy incompatibility of two people rubbing against each other trying to smooth out a compromise.

The film’s not perfect: I understand industry folks’ tendency to turn to advertising when they want to give their characters a profession — it’s their bread and butter too, the day job that allows them to maintain their very expensive mistress, cinema — but I’m not a fan of the trope. The couple seems to operate in a vacuum — we see them striding through an office with people in the background, extras with no dialogue looking on the quarreling lovers with barely any curiosity (could be a stylized thing — in Carlo and Alex’s world only they have any real existence; on the other hand, a best friend or co-worker could’ve added some texture to the relationship). Santos gives the funnier performance but Oineza is an equally capable comedienne (her opening scenes with Bernard the bodybuilder, where she can barely bring herself to follow the man’s relentless narcissist bragging, are hilarious) — too bad she mostly ends up as straight man to Santos’ punchlines.

Maybe my biggest plaint is this need to DTR anything at all. Discussing a relationship sounds less like a breath of fresh air and more like the wheezing of a terminal ward patient; you wonder if maybe younger folks are talking the fun out of relationships. In my time we just went ahead and dated without worrying if this is a thing or not, should it be, and why — but don’t mind me; I’m probably on the wrong side of history and this is strictly a generational thing.

I do like quite a few of the director’s touches: how without much fuss she has Alex live in financial independence, with a more prosperous-looking apartment; how Alex is Carlo’s boss without need to hide their relationship or even feel embarrassed (maybe there’s a professional ethics issue?); how Carlo prepares Alex’s packed lunch and coffee thermos, even tucks in her shirt before she runs out the door — baby steps not major steps forward and probably not the first time depicted onscreen, but, but, but…

O’Hara’s second feature doesn’t have the impact of her first, but then she doesn’t have a story whole and complete (between her uncle and her grandmother) and waiting for translation to the big screen. This isn’t the same story or even the same kind of story either, it has a different, more understated look, and it whets the appetite to see what she might come up with in her next film.