Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “Last Night” opens with two suicide attempts.
Mark (Piolo Pascual) stands on the ledge of the Jones Bridge ready to take his own life when he sees Carmina (Toni Gonzaga) dangling off the railing, crying for help. She had jumped ahead of him and failed to kill herself. Mark climbs down to save her and after some time spent together, they form a pact to commit suicide together.
What follows this morbid meet-cute in Bb. Joyce Bernal’s latest film with Star Cinema is one of the most unsettlingly romantic and one-dimensional portrayals of suicide in recent memory. Suicide is an extreme choice people make as a result of multiple interplaying factors, and in reality, there’s nothing cute, romantic or redemptive about the act.
Multiple mental health organizations have published guidelines for the responsible portrayal of suicide in film and television (here’s a good one from Samaritans, a suicide hotline in the UK).
One key rule is never to portray suicide as the product of a single event in the character’s life (a breakup, the death of another character), because in reality, suicide is driven by a number of factors, both external and psychological. Another rule is to never portray suicide as a valid means of solving one’s problems, because it’s an extreme choice from which there’s no turning back, a choice that shouldn’t even be on the table. Another key rule is to not portray characters recovering too quickly after a suicide attempt because of the psychological trauma that follows a failed suicide. “Last Night” breaks all of these rules.
These guides exist for a number of reasons. First, it’s important for audiences to form a more nuanced understanding of suicide and the gravity of the choice people make when they take their own lives. Second, people who consider committing suicide can feel validated by simplistic, overly explicit portrayals of suicide that may drive them to action. There’s a huge responsibility, then, for anyone telling stories of suicide in media to portray the act and its motivations accurately.
That’s where many of the problems of “Last Night” lie. Not only is the film insulting to people who have struggled with legitimate mental health issues and have contemplated suicide. It makes the grave mistake of making suicide look cute, which is a dangerous line to tread.
Mark and Carmina never really struggle with their one-dimensional motivations for taking their own lives, or grapple too seriously with questions of mortality. Bela Padilla’s screenplay never offers a nuanced look into the terribly flat main characters and Bernal’s direction plays up all of Mark and Carmina’s suicide attempts for their levity.
For instance, the two try to hang themselves off a curtain rod, then find themselves in stitches when the rod breaks off the wall. They try to electrocute themselves in a bathtub with a hairdryer, which ought to be terrifying, but instead it plays out as a tender moment for the two to soak one another with the showerhead.
After every failed attempt, Carmina brushes the whole thing off and gives another wide-eyed suggestion for a dramatic suicide, like going on a romantic date and poisoning their food or bathing in blood then feeding themselves to sharks. She suggests these without a second thought about the gravity of these actions, as if suggesting they go to Jollibee because McDonald’s is closed.
This trivialization of suicide is dangerous because it normalizes the act, making it appear as if suicide is as valid a solution for negative emotions as, let’s say, seeking professional help or reaching out to friends and family. The fact that it’s all so cutesy in its execution adds insult to injury. Nobody laughs after trying to hang themselves.
Spoiler: As people do in a romantic comedy, the two terribly flat characters find themselves slowly falling in love with one another (except it’s in the process of trying to kill themselves) and discovering this new lust for life (shocker!). There’s a big moment of realization for Mark after he tries to jump off the Jones Bridge a second time. In an instant, he gains the will to power through everything that made him want to kill himself in the first place.
It’s a shame that Padilla and Bernal chose to show something as complex as suicide in such one-dimensional terms — that it’s fun and games and if you fail enough times, you get to decide that you want to live. Hopefully, filmmakers learn to do better and treat the subject matter more responsibly in the future.
Earlier this year, numerous mental health professionals came out to criticize Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” for its portrayal of a young character using suicide as a means to exact revenge on the people who hurt her. Another major issue was its graphic suicide scene. Suicide should never be depicted in explicit detail because it could inspire copycat behavior. As experts warned, there was a reported 26% increase in online searches for “how to kill yourself” in the months following the show’s release.
There have been some better-researched portrayals of suicide in film. Stephen Daldry’s 2002 film “The Hours” is one good example, where Virginia Woolf’s (Nicole Kidman) suicide was well-contextualized within her history of mental illness. The actual suicide scene is neither explicit nor glamorized. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ 2006 ensemble film “Little Miss Sunshine” gave us Frank Ginsberg (Steve Carrell), a professor who joins the family road trip while recovering from a suicide attempt. His depression is shown in all its dreariness and we follow him through the slow, imperfect journey toward recovery.
“Last Night” is ultimately a missed opportunity to shed light on the darkness of suicide and the complexity of the motivations behind it. I’m reminded of a line from the film where, after their initial meeting, Mark tells Carmina, “Ayaw mo talagang magpakamatay. Nagpapapansin ka lang.” Well, that’s the film for you.