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Ulan: The Shapes of Water

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By Menchu Aquino Sarmiento

Movie Review
Ulan
Directed by Irene Emma Villamor

GENTLE sun-dappled rainfall is the benign form water takes for the child Maya (Elia Ilano) who lost her parents in a storm at sea. In Filipino folklore, this odd synchronicity of sunshine and rain is whimsically believed to happen during the weddings of tikbalang, those horse-headed creatures of our lower mythology who like to lead wayfarers astray. Do take note of the lovely cinematography and the thoughtful production design of this beautifully photographed film.

The crusty grandmother (Perla Bautista) who raises Maya, tells her rain is a scourge from heaven. She offers eggs to keep the sun shining so she can do her laundry. Her lack of consideration for anyone else, like farmers, duh, is just one of the things which makes the lola a not exactly sympathetic character. When the preternaturally well-behaved and reserved Maya politely requests her lola’s permission to ask a question, the old lady testily replies, “Huwag kang makulit” (Don’t be importunate), then further puts her down, in public. While Maya sits on the windowsill, dutifully picking out her lola’s white hairs, her school crush Jose Albert comes by, and calls her to come out and play. Lola hears him too, but messes with her granddaughter, by claiming it is through her third eye that she knows Maya would rather play with this little hottie than groom her. Through the magic of CGI, this ostensible third eye creepily stares out at Maya from her freaky lola’s aged scalp.

Being the target of school bullies does not help little Maya’s mental health. Her hyper-sexualized male classmates nastily mime coital thrusts when she asks their teacher about the efficacy of her lola’s practice of offering eggs to keep the world dry for her narrowly selfish interests. This is occasion for another CGI moment to illustrate Maya’s defensive delusion that the bullies are now mascot-like, life-size chicken eggs. Her innocence doesn’t let her see them for the scrotum-souled, little dickheads they really are.

Because this purports to be a romance with elements of drama, the film follows the young adult Maya through a series of ill-fated heterosexual relationships. To make Nadine Lustre believable as an unlucky-in-love wallflower, she is frumpified in dull, mid-calf length shirtwaists. Grown-up Maya is so socially awkward and clueless, she has carried the torch for her former college classmate Mark (A.J. Muhlach) who has been incommunicado in the States for the last three years. Back in Manila, Mark invites Maya to visit him in his home for his birthday. She is the only guest, aside from his wife and baby. Anyway, in her excitement at reconnecting with her old flame, Maya had brought an entire cheesecake, not expecting to have her heart broken. Later, she confesses to her bestie Topi (Josef Elizalde as that romcom staple, the safe, gay confidante — here he is a couturier) that she wanted to mash Mark’s, his wife’s and baby’s faces into the cheesecake. Ms. Lustre is one of our most talented young actresses. Her natural and nuanced delivery is never strident nor hysterical but always credibly restrained.




The well-meaning Topi gives Maya a make-over so she can pass for his assistant at a wedding where he dressed up the bride — as if it would cheer her up to see other people celebrating their love. In a fit of bitterness, she spitefully tells the best man Andrew (Marco Gumabao) that the bride has called the wedding off. Weirdly, he finds her neurotic behavior charming and smoothly flirts with her. She gives in to his thing for high heels. They become an item, but Maya is unable to cope with his professional association with the gorgeous and accomplished Princess (Kylie Verzosa throwing shade).

Maya is such a sucker for romance she works as an editorial assistant at a generic pulp romance paperback publishing house with a misogynistically hostile work environment which she can’t get enough of. She even works on Saturdays. Her abusive sleazebag boss (Leo Martinez) tells her she needs bigger boobs, and rejects her manuscript without reading it, because he’s already determined that it won’t give him a hard-on. That is supposed to be funny, the com in the rom.

The third time around, Maya gets lucky in love. Actually, not really. No spoilers so leave it at that. A rainstorm brings Peter (Carlo Aquino) into her life. He has read her diary, but she can live with that invasion of her privacy from the start.

It’s heartening when romcom’s wear social advocacies on their sleeves. Peter is a noble volunteer with a literacy program in a public library for urban poor children. He and the literary Maya are so compatible, even if she complains about his lack of libog (lust) — as if she didn’t get enough of that from her lech of a boss.

In the end, Maya copes by reconnecting with her childhood self — the one who sees things — not just dead people but a horrifically made up Angel Bayani playing the elemental embodiment of a typhoon and showing off her formidable acting chops with an overwrought, eyes rolling backwards rant about a woman betrayed. Having lost a chance at future happiness with the man she loves, Maya retreats into her past. As her gross boss crassly puts it, what she lacks in penetration, she makes up for with imagination.

MTRCB Rating: PG