Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Antoinette Jadaone’s career as a writer-director most famous for romantic comedies has felt like a five-year act of slow magic.
The first rom-com she directed in 2014, the Cinema One Originals entry “That Thing Called Tadhana,” was a standout crossover hit. The film follows Mace (Angelica Panganiban) and Anthony (JM de Guzman) as they travel from Rome to Manila to Baguio to Sagada. It’s a journey they take where they slough off heartbreak and come to fall in love with one another. It was a risk putting out this dialogue-heavy two hours — a “Before Sunrise” with a Star Cinema ending — but it was a film cleverly written, with heart and humor at a time when online “hugot” culture was at its peak. “Tadhana” eventually grossed over 60 times its budget and led Jadaone through a string of successful rom-coms.
She’s since proven to be a master of the genre, her scripts navigating its tropes and beats with ease, offering a fresh touch every time. The first subversion of an Antoinette Jadaone film is it is almost always a film about a woman, and a “leading man” is simply her foil. Her last few films have proven to be even more subversive, as if she’s been incrementally subtracting and adding elements to a tried and tested formula to the point that you wonder whether her latest film, “Alone/Together,” counts as a rom-com at all. It takes gall and genius to make a film that fulfills the bare minimum requirement of casting a love team yet hardly tells a traditional rom-com story.
(Major spoilers for “Alone/Together” as well as “Never Not Love You” and “Love You To The Stars And Back” ahead.)
“Alone/Together” begins in reminiscence. The opening shot has Tin (Liza Soberano) eyeing Juan Luna’s “Spoliarium” pensively, calling back everything the painting has meant to her. We flashback to her time as a University of the Philippines (UP) undergraduate, working part time as a tour guide at the National Museum. She gives a lecture to high school students about the importance of never forgetting history. It is an exhortation towards its audience about how Philippine history’s darkest moments inform the darkness of our present time, but also an act of synecdoche — as if to say that as people, we are encumbered by our personal histories yet musn’t forget them lest we repeat our own mistakes.
We learn that Tin is an idealistic art studies major who meets Raf (Enrique Gil), a pre-medicine student from the University of Sto. Tomas. The two dream of a life together, an imagined future where she becomes a famous art curator and he becomes a doctor. The film meets the two again five years after they’ve broken up. Raf is the doctor he always wanted to be and Tin has found herself banished from the art world after an incident at her first job. She plays both gofer and trophy wife to her successful businessman boyfriend Greg (Adrian Alandy). Raf, on the other hand, is in a relationship with Aly (Jasmine Curtis-Smith), a fellow doctor.
The two cross paths by chance and it stirs something in them. They meet one night at the Sunken Garden in UP, itself a place heavy with remembrance, and start talking about that past life they shared, how it all went wrong and how they’ve found themselves in this place now.
From here on out, Tin grapples with the weight of history and how it’s made her life difficult. Who you are is a story you tell yourself and Tin’s is one where she’s come to terms with the hand she’s been dealt. At 27, she will never be the person she intended to be at 21 and that is what breaks her heart. Worse than losing Raf, she lost the person that she used to be.
Jadaone paints the tragedy of young adulthood with the same eye for heart and humor she lends to all her work. It is a film about being anchored by past lives, about being haunted by the dreams you once had for yourself. This is the film’s greatest heartbreak, that there is no limit to our dreaming until the world in all its smallness comes to taint those dreams forever.
That’s a dark place for a “romantic comedy” to go and yet every step Jadaone has taken creatively up to this point has prepared us for it. “Love You To The Stars And Back” has Mika (Julia Barretto) and Caloy (Joshua Garcia) as teenagers who’ve given up on their lives with their families and go on a journey to get abducted by aliens (a subtle, poignant metaphor for teenage suicide). The characters feel like they’ve been pushed away by the world and alien abduction makes for this magnificent escape from it. “Never Not Love You” drives its characters’ relationship to a breaking point but the two have been together for so long that staying together feels like their only recourse. Its ending is bittersweet, with Joanne (Nadine Lustre) and Gio (James Reid) driving through Manila, a city that has borne witness to their love story. Every old hangout is run-down, bereft of the life it once had. Their relationship feels like it’s gone through the same decay as the city that birthed it.
Airports play a big role in Jadaone’s filmography. Ever since Mace and Anthony met over excess baggage at the Rome — Fiumicino International Airport in “That Thing Called Tadhana,” many of her characters have shared pivotal moments in transit. In “Never Not Love You,” Joanne and Gio are in and out of airports as they try to move to London together then attempt a long-distance relationship afterwards.
The NAIA scene halfway through “Alone/Together” is one of its most painful. Tin and Raf spend a few days together in New York and much like the twisted game of pretend that Chow Mo-wan and Su Li-zhen play in Wong Kar Wai’s “In The Mood For Love,” Tin and Raf play out their lost romance. It inevitably feels too tainted by time and they cannot carry on as if they’re still kids. When they return in Manila, they act like strangers, a few steps apart on the airport escalators on the way to baggage claim. They return to the lives they’ve chosen and the hands they’ve been dealt.
Jadaone’s cinema is as dark and glorious as love itself, sparkling with wonder yet burdened by memory and colored by the world that love grows in. “Alone/Together” feels like one of her heaviest films, where she’s pushed the genre to its edge. Here, romantic love is almost an aside to grappling with the weight of personal history. It sits neatly within a body of work that speaks volumes about the human condition, packages itself in familiar romantic comedy tropes, and continues to make millions of pesos at the box office. There’s a magic trick worth seeing.