About Us But Not About Us (Jun Robles Lana, 2022)

A lunchtime conversation between two men provokes a series of confrontations in Jun Robles Lana’s pressing psychological drama About Us But Not About Us. There is indeed more going on than it seems, prompting a number of questions about who it is that’s really in control along with the subjective quality of memory and personal myth making. After all as the younger of the men later says, nothing compares to our fictional counterparts both those we create for ourselves and those born of the projections of of others. 

40-year-old professor Eric (Romnick Sarmenta) takes a look at the bags under his eyes in the mirror of his classic Beetle as he arrives at a restaurant for a lunch meeting with a student and gently applies moisturiser to his eyes before heading inside. It’s a small moment that hints at his insecurity about his age and also that he may have more interest in the student, Lance (Elijah Canlas), than he later claims. Lance is already waiting, perky and preppy in his neutral beige outfit and non-threatening haircut. The purpose of the meeting seems to be so that Lance can return the keys to Eric’s spare flat where he had being staying to escape an abusive stepfather. Lance no longer feels comfortable being there, in part because he’s afraid false rumours that there may be something inappropriate going on between them could cause problems for them both at the university, but also because he worries that his presence may have contributed to the suicide of Eric’s late partner Marcus, a leading light of English-language literature in the Philippines. 

Marcus had known about Eric’s interest in Lance but warned him about becoming too involved seeing as he is a teacher and Lance his student not to mention that he is also 20 years older and even if he’s done nothing wrong others may read his well-meaning attempts to help as “inappropriate”. But then we start to wonder, is Lance really as helpless as he claims to be? It seems strange that a 22-year-old man would need this kind of rescuing, perhaps as some have suggested he’s constructed an image of himself as vulnerable so that Eric will feel compelled to help him. Despite his seeming meekness, Lance does appear to be ambitious yet insecure smarting from an offhand comment of Marcus’ that he may in the end lack the necessary talent to be accounted a writer. 

In a theatrical conceit, Lana realises the projected images each has of the other to segue into recreations of previous meetings in which either Eric or Lance plays the role of the absent Marcus whose views are recounted only in the book he had written shortly before he died, his first in Filipino, or filtered through the memories and intentions of the other two men who of course may not be entirely honest in their recollections. Eric insists the problems that may or may not have existed between himself and Marcus were not not really “about” Lance. He claims to have been unhappy and emotionally neglected for years if also still in love, while later conceding that the book is both about and not about them in its retelling of a “trashy” love triangle as an intensely literary potboiler. 

That the book is in Filipino rather than English may hint at a further desire for “authenticity”, as may Lance’s desire to transfer from the English department to that in his native language. Yet neither man is really being “authentic”, not entirely able to reclaim themselves from the image projected onto them by others. The battle for control shifts uneasily between them, Eric assuming he has the upper hand by virtue of his age and position all while Lance may be cynically manipulating him, playing on his latent desire while fluffing his ego in appearing as a lost young man in need of help and guidance. Even so, a possibly imagined conversation with Marcus later suggests that Eric enjoys the subversion and is at heart a masochist who actively seeks to be controlled, perhaps he knows what the game is after all. Lana ends on a note of ambiguity in which it seems there is a choice to be made between sustaining a fiction and rejecting it but then again “sometimes feelings are more important than the truth.”

About Us But Not About Us screened as part of this year’s Queer East .

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Big Night! (Jun Robles Lana, 2021)

In the opening scenes of Jun Robles Lana’s darkly comic farce Big Night! a young man is shot in the head by another young man, this one wearing a motorcycle helmet with its visor down, who calmly walks away and gets back on the back of the bike he arrived on his friend then driving them both away. Of course people are shocked but then again not all that much, they barely pause despite the fact that his man, Ronron, was well known to them and no one really thought he had much to do with drugs. Beautician Dharna (Christian Bables) gossips about the killing with his friend Biba but gives it little thought before returning to his day, so normalised has death on the streets become in Duterte’s Philippines. 

Dharna may not have given much thought to extrajudicial killings, but then it’s different when it’s you who might be next in the firing line as he discovers when Biba gets an advance view of the following day’s “Watch List” from her law enforcement boyfriend. What ensues is a kafkaesque quest to clear his name though there’s no real “official” path towards getting off a watch list when you’re on one. His boyfriend Zeus who is due to perform in a “Big Night” pageant at a local gay bar that very night suggests simply fleeing to another district, but flight implies guilt and as Dharna points out he’ll lose all his customers if he has to move to another area and neither of them have the money to start all over again somewhere new. Like many of Dharna’s friends and acquaintances Zeus doesn’t seem to share his concern. “The police won’t bother you if you’re not doing anything illegal” he naively advises, sure it’s all just a random mistake that soon will blow over but otherwise so numbed to the idea of extrajudicial killing that he doesn’t really think too much of it and is mainly annoyed that Dharna has lost interest in helping finish his costume for the big show. 

Neither of them can think of a reason why Dharna, under his full legal name, would have been placed on a list as he’s not a drug user and doesn’t know anyone who is. He does, however, have some useful connections including local law enforcement official Cynthia who isn’t terribly interested or helpful but manipulates his anxiety to force him to help her out by filling in for her regular mortician, Connie, who has mysteriously not shown up for work. The morgue is currently overflowing, Cynthia making a dark joke that undertaking is a growth industry while revealing that there are so many bodies in part because families have to pay a fee to get them back and most of those involved in extrajudicial killings are from the slums so they can’t afford it. Even so, she explains to Dharna that they get more donations when families can see the body which is why he’s supposed to make them up to look as good as they can despite many of them having sustained gunshot wounds to the head or face. 

Cynthia sends him on to local community leader Roja warning him that he’s “allergic to gays” while he too makes Dharna do his bidding pointlessly walking laps around a fountain in some sort of macho display of endurance while insisting that he’s so anti-drug that even if he gets a stomach upset he just powers through it with raw masculine energy. He too is a self-interested hypocrite spouting religious nonsense while hanging out in “massage parlours”, dangling the idea of salvation but unprepared to grant it. Dharna wonders if it might have been someone from the area where he grew up who reported him but discovers that unlicensed midwife Melba (Janice De Belen) makes a point of not putting any names forward at all and is herself willing to risk breaking the law to help women in need who are denied medical treatment because of their poverty.

It’s impossible to avoid the implication that this is happening to Dharna in part because he’s poor and powerless in an authoritarian and hierarchal society but he’s eventually forced to consider that someone may have put his name in a drop box anonymously, that perhaps they gave a random name when someone asked for one to save their own, because they had something against him, or sought to profit in some way from his absence. Like the witch trials of old, the war against drugs is another tool that can be manipulated for personal gain and so inured to violence has the society become that many are prepared to use it. Dharna finds himself at the centre of a random conspiracy in which he has no other option than to accept his complicity or die, discovering that as the radio report that opened the film had suggested the same officials in charge of prosecuting the war on drugs are in fact secretly using it to secure their stranglehold over the local drugs trade. 

Dharna finds himself compromised at every turn, beginning by offering free haircuts to help his case to progressing to covering up state crime, literally, by repairing the faces of the dead and graduating to faking a seizure in an ambulance to bypass a checkpoint. At the hospital he is confronted by the face of an old lady filled with despair one hand holding that of a little girl and the other a pair of bloody sandals before she simply collapses. Dharna tries to wash the sandals clean but there’s only so much you can do when the stain runs so deep. The irony of his big night taking place on All Souls Day is not lost though there’s precious little time for honouring the dead when your survival can no longer be assured. 

Big Night screens at UltraStar Cinemas Mission Valley, San Diego April 23/27 as part of this year’s SDAFF Spring Showcase.

Original trailer (English subtitles)