She’s Dating the Gangster (Cathy Garcia-Molina, 2014) July 30, 2014Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Noypi.
Written by Carmi Raymundo
Directed by Cathy Garcia-Molina
Cast: Kathryn Bernardo, Daniel Padilla, Richard Gomez, Dawn Zulueta, Ian Veneracion
There is something curious about this tendency of a certain portion of the moviegoing public to wish for smarter commercial films. Although their conventional nature has long been established and accepted, local genre movies, for them to be considered deserving of attention and praise, are expected to bend rules and display cleverness. The lack of originality is justifiable, but when this degree of smartness (or coolness) is not met, it becomes easier and more convenient to find fault and notice particular areas in which the film could have been better, further encouraging this school of criticism that strives to be objective, pointing out the good and the bad and weighing these elements together as though worth could be gauged through basic enumeration of qualities and attainment of balance. But objectivity is sometimes as unhelpful as dismissal, and often taken for granted is the fact that studio releases don’t need to be smart to be successful—commercially and artistically—and some of them are actually successful on both terms because they have no intention to appear smart.
Star Cinema understands this play of principles, for its main currency is context. When its writers and directors are in top form, they manage to come up with wonderful pieces of fluff that make a larger impression than those independent movies acclaimed at festivals abroad, an impact that self-serving snobs are keen on invalidating. Although these commercial films cannot compete as far as novelty, depth, and breadth of subjects are concerned, they touch on specific aspects of Filipino sensibility, which may be trifling and negligible to some but in fact more genuine and persuasive than many attempts at social relevance.
In the case of Star Cinema’s romantic comedies, which have been its consistent breadwinner since the mid-2000s, the most striking effort is the proliferation of love teams, continuing the tradition of fanaticism that has made audiences of various generations swoon over Rogelio dela Rosa and Carmen Rosales, Tita Duran and Pancho Magalona, Nida Blanca and Nestor de Villa, Nora Aunor and Tirso Cruz III, Vilma Santos and Bobot Mortiz, Jolina Magdangal and Marvin Agustin, Piolo Pascual and Judy Ann Santos, and John Lloyd Cruz and Bea Alonzo—a few of those pairs whose chemistry onscreen has the ability to create sparks and induce spasms, celebrities whose private and social lives at the peak of their careers were owned by the public.
Frankly, no volume of Hollywood movies can match the experience of seeing the middleclass and the masses lose their heads over these reel lovers—an infatuation whose plain existence is its reason—and this is an identity to be proud of: an instance when emotions become exclusive but not dismissive, when certain feelings (generally thought to be universal) are fully comprehensible only to the film’s target audience, and when enjoyment rests comfortably on a skillful suspension of disbelief. When it comes down to the wire, the virtues, peculiarities, and nuances of kilig are hardly possible to interpret, translate, or subtitle.
The release of She’s Dating the Gangster is crucial not only in ascertaining the intense popularity of Kathryn Bernardo and Daniel Padilla, whose phenomenal rise to fame is describable only through exaggeration, but also in attesting to the power of cinema to hold magic: that ability to affect and make sweeping gestures that bring about irrational, foolish, and ridiculous reactions. There is nothing groundbreaking about this, of course, but it’s pointless to overlook the fact that the KathNiel fever, as far as action is concerned, is growing, advancing, and overpowering. One can only smirk at audience members responding with rowdiness upon the mere sight of the actors’ names in the opening credits, shrieking and stomping their feet, losing it every time Daniel and Kathryn appear onscreen. Midway through the film, the noise becomes part of the viewing experience, a series of occasions on which a simple close-up signals a rumpus; and making a sober assessment, which takes into account both milieu and material, becomes trickier and more challenging.
At some point, though, a line can be drawn, and a few things can be articulated. For instance, Kathryn’s loveliness is intoxicating: she glows with delight, lights up every corner of the screen, and acts without drawing too much attention to herself or her quirks. Her Athena and Kelay can easily exude the qualities of a manic pixie dream girl despite not being one, but she is able to kill any sense of mystery and irony in her characters, her weak moments outshined by her strong ones. There is something regal about her overall appearance—how her clear skin, perfect teeth, and bright eyes convey such warm and pleasant feeling. Only she can temper Daniel’s smugness with grace, and people identify with her openly: she who falls for someone seemingly unattainable, someone who can be so cruelly distant and difficult. Kathryn is obviously a more convincing actor than Daniel, and she does it without overreaching or stealing his thunder, capturing those conflicting youthful emotions that people her age usually experience.
Daniel, on the other hand, knows how to work his charm with ease, the laziness and overconfidence strangely coming off rather endearing, and this owes not only to his genes but also to his awareness of them. The bad boy image fits him like a glove, and although it’s hard for him to adjust when it comes to softer scenes, he makes an effort to humanize his characters. Whenever he crumples his forehead and furrows his eyebrows ostentatiously to express despair, or when he consciously does that knee-bending grin to win Kathryn over, he gets away with it deftly—he is so used to being forgiven. As Kenji and Kenneth, Daniel is able to substantiate his matinée idol status, something which Rico Yan or Piolo Pascual has once experienced, and live up to a considerable measure of the adulation heaped on him. Those scenes that show him dancing prove that he understands it: silliness is not only part the game—it also completes it.
She’s Dating the Gangster is based on a book written by Bianca Bernardino, first published on Wattpad in 2006. A certain demographic has taken it pretty seriously, encouraging Summit Media to pick it up and put it out under its Pop Fiction series. To some extent, this type of young adult novels seems to differentiate itself consciously from those romance pocketbooks with daring covers that quite a number of people find too crude (the consumption of which often associated condescendingly with house helpers and folks from the province). Their themes and narratives have glaring similarities, particularly with the heavily female point of view and abuse of lengthy voiceovers, but the difference lies in the target readership. She’s Dating the Gangster caters more to high school and college students, millenials whose everyday interactions are dedicated mostly to the joys and thrills of online friendship, hinged on the comfort provided by social media and its placebo effect. Several of these readers, for some reason, have also found the eccentricities of Korean dramas (and culture, subsequently) amusing and worth emulating: the lightheartedness, the gentle approach to things, and the attractive routes to escape they offer. Although Bernardino’s book confronts serious subjects (illness, death, suicide), the sensibility is constricted and juvenile, and the decisions of its characters just seem bent on providing shamelessly emotional plot turns.
In short, the original material may have an appeal, but it’s neither literary nor cinematic enough. Screenwriter Carmi Raymundo and director Cathy Garcia-Molina have seen these limitations and decided to work around them with Kathryn and Daniel in mind, because once their faces are pressed on the roles, the narrative is sure to find its own direction. It’s hilarious how some people decry the use of “gangster,” which represents the childish and irresponsible codenames that students come up with when they are angry or annoyed—names whose meanings matter only in that phase of their lives and are gradually forgotten after it—but it is something that the film itself does not even take seriously. “Gangster” is a hook that gets played over and over to the point of annoyance, but its only purpose is to stay in one’s memory.
The riskiest change is setting the bulk of the story in the 90s, which Garcia-Molina carries too far to achieve something downright silly and out-and-out artificial. There’s no point being realistic in both the look and details—from the use of beepers and playing billiards to the awful get-up of students and the design of the school, the phoniness actually persuades the viewer to make fun of them. The film is too conscious about establishing the era, clumsily incorporating that Eraserheads song, those AC/DC and Nirvana T-shirts, and those embarrassing classroom details into a story whose characters do not even display any smidgen of interest in them. Wigs remain a Star Cinema curse, and seeing them on Kathryn and Daniel is like watching them fully submit to a terrible initiation rite. Cinematographer Dan Villegas enjoys filling the screen with bright light and vivid colors, and despite moving repeatedly from past to present, he maintains this glossy texture that is easy on the eyes, keeping that surface busy but almost weightless, as though he were tempered by love himself.
This tacky 90s imitation, however, rarely feels dishonest. The many decorations in the film only serve to surround Kenji and Athena and are not there to define them. Their love story does not depend on where they are and who they are with—for clichéd as it may sound, it depends on the choices they make based on the circumstances. When those options are laid down, the movie bares its flaws and gives in to crappy turns of plot. Undoubtedly the most prominent of these is the strained detailing of their separation, the deathbed drama, the wasted Rio Locsin monologue, the utter forcedness of it all that doesn’t seem to jibe with the hollow surroundings—since as far as attachment to the story is concerned, their romance has been real and convincing, and this breakup (or its barely credible motivation) sticks out too proudly.
Another concern is the decision to let the pair play both roles, and perhaps the only way to answer it is to imagine it the other way around. Again, commercial films are after the effect, and they are allowed to have these implausible situations as long as they accomplish larger-than-life consequences. And She’s Dating the Gangster, aware may it seem of its folly, hangs onto this device that lets the viewer feel that since Kenji and Athena have not been able to reach their happily ever after because of timing, Kenneth and Kelay, in a preposterous twist of fate as Kenji’s son and Athena’s niece, are there to fulfill those years of longing and distance, allowing them to meet by chance and become close to each other. How else can the audience feel the pain (of the past) and the excitement (of the present) if it weren’t for Kathryn and Daniel acting as reminders of fate and doom? The ending may be a cop-out, the same way that most Star Cinema endings have always been inadequate and disappointing, but it is intended for no one but the fans, those who will watch the film more than once just to have that feeling again, those who understand that love is not for everyone but would rather see it received by deserving people.
After two dull feature-length movies (Must Be… Love and Pagpag) and two remarkable television shows (Princess and I and Got to Believe), Kathryn and Daniel are already well-acquainted with the body language that drives their fans mad, gestures and actions that can set off incredible reactions. Garcia-Molina takes advantage of this, but she also challenges them. By putting them in two backdrops, it feels as though she wanted them to relearn the basics of kilig, stretching their boundaries to discover finer distinctions that can be explored and new flirty tricks that can be carried out to maximum effect. She is a director that can easily be dismissed or overrated, but after more than a decade of sticking to her method and style, appropriating them to a number of love teams whether tried or new, it just seems fair to recognize that she is an indispensable filmmaker, as vital to this industry as Lav Diaz and Wenn Deramas, for only she can deliver romantic comedies that are entertaining, insightful, and sensitive, with flair and skill, with hardly an unpleasant aftertaste.
In fact, it owes to her that the single most memorable scene in She’s Dating the Gangster is not between Kathryn and Daniel but between Richard Gomez and Dawn Zulueta, showing their heartrending final (and brief) encounter in slow motion, as though as a director she were doing her part to extend their time together and give them a closure they deserve, and with Angeline Quinto’s powerful singing in the background, Kenji lights up as he sees her, snatched by the most overwhelming kind of happiness, the most unexpected surprise of his life, the only bright cloud in his empty sky, and Athena, now in a wheelchair, frail but cheerful, resigned to dying but content just to have this one moment, looks up to him and smiles; he exclaims “Hi” and she replies “Gangster,” and by now everything seems to float on tears, sinking the inconsistencies and emphasizing only the unforgettable: Athena’s crazy cheerleading, Kenji’s dance moves, that wedding promise witnessed by Mayon, Athena touching her chest and Kenji oblivious of her sickness, and his words before she dies—”All the years of waiting, it’s all worth it just to see you today”—the pain alluding to Hihintayin Kita sa Langit, their intimacy transcending circumstances, the ability of love to travel and come back in different form but remaining pure and intact, and time, as always, the unkindest villain of them all, being a bitch.