Metro Manila Film Festival

‘About Us But Not About Us’ review: All mumble, no core

Lé Baltar

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‘About Us But Not About Us’ review: All mumble, no core

Screenshot from trailer

'Don’t queer people deserve better work from creators and cultural workers, who supposedly champion us and our stories, especially those from the community?'

This is a spoiler-free review.

There’s no doubt that most reviews of About Us But Not About Us would commend the acting mettle of Elijah Canlas and Romnick Sarmenta, precisely because the film’s weight rested on their shoulders, and they did quite well in sustaining, if not stretching, that weight — trying to keep the viewers at ease even as the film abrasively peels aways its many layers. Sure, the idea of a local film shot in a single location and driven entirely by dialogue seems captivating, and writer-director Jun Robles Lana certainly knows how to make it appear like one, confident that the film can tower over these constraints. 

Lana makes the wise decision to keep the camera on his characters’ faces, rendering more visible the intention and malice behind each reaction, especially when things begin to shapeshift, and shapeshift it does. If anything, the film is pretty good in making every plot turn look so risky and alluring, owing mostly to Lawrence Ang’s editing as well as Fatima Salim and Immanuel Verona’s sound design, such that one could easily mistake it for breadth and depth. One can even argue that the film’s technical details — like the way cinematographer Neil Daza wields the camera to toy with the characters’ psyche and, by extension, that of the viewers’ — are its only saving grace.

Because as we uncoil the complex relationship between Lance (Canlas) and Eric (Sarmenta), a relationship between a young student and an established professor informed by ethics and power dynamics, it becomes hard to ignore how the film is impelled by its duty to speak for the queer community, to talk at length about predatory behavior and abuse as though they are experiences merely waiting to be narrativized or rehashed like worn-out tropes.

And while one can appreciate how Lana situates these forms of violence within the Philippine literary community, considering how its institutions and circles have often swept these cases under the rug just to maintain its empty prestige, the attempt appears rather flimsy and self-indulgent, with Lana opting to go for clever references and namedrops and only offering flashes of discernment, instead of confronting head-on the issues the film is so keen to present. The way it parses the dilemma that most writers and artists contend with is exciting at one point, but still ends up too self-absorbed. There’s even a point in the film that one can find funny in terms of how it discusses “The Next Great Filipino Novel” out of sheer self-fascination.

It’s also a huge lapse that the film doesn’t even have any content warning disclaimer, given how its narrative uproots many awful, triggering items. Or perhaps the intent, really, is to make the viewers feel disconcerted. In any case, it still leaves a bad taste in the mouth. 

Interestingly, there’s this recent take from writer-director Francis Lee (God’s Own Country, Ammonite) about making queer characters in films complex and problematic beyond “just the cute teens holding hands,” which makes examining About Us But Not About Us far more intriguing. To an extent, the film does meet this complexity by showing that LGBTQ+ people are no saints and that, like anyone else, they are also capable of horrible things. 

But if the point of the film is to interrogate the positive representation of queer people in the media — which there aren’t many, if one really thinks about it, especially in local cinema — then such impulse demands better imagination. Isn’t it dangerous that for all its insinuations on the violence that internally permeates the LGBTQ+ community, the film refuses to imagine a better way out of it, that it can’t offer even just a semblance of justice to victims and survivors of abuse, that it forgoes character humanization for narrative progress, that it stops at being cynical? Don’t queer people (this trans nonbinary writer included) deserve better work from creators and cultural workers, who supposedly champion us and our stories, especially those from the community? 

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Although set in a different context, this calls to mind the defeatist closing frame of Big Night!, Lana’s previous work. In retrospect, it’s hard to accept that the frame of mind to which About Us But Not About Us affixes its grand statements lacks urgency and deeper analysis, precisely because one knows that a filmmaker like Lana can do way better.

Moreover, during the post-advance screening Q&A portion at the UP Cine Adarna, an audience member asked about casting queer actors, and Lana’s response tiptoes between wanting to prioritize an actor’s talent (in essence, the craft) and ensuring representation. One cannot help but wonder, though: Don’t we have enough talented queer actors out there? Should craft and representation be mutually exclusive?

Despite its blinks of brilliance, About Us But Not About Us is so consumed by the beauty of its own design, so clinical that it forgets to treat its subjects with maturity and refined insight, failing to recognize that a perfect mumblecore actually requires a meaningful core, not just pure mumble.

At a time when the SOGIE equality bill remains to languish in Congress, when hate crimes against queer people starkly increase by the day, and when mainstream media continues to perpetuate anti-trans sentiment, it’s only right that we question how cinema, or anything of cultural value, wrestles with these realities, and how art and art-making under these volatile circumstances matter. Lest we forget, cinema, like anything in the world, can also be a space of complicity. If it isn’t any clearer, we simply cannot dig out the stories and lived experiences of a particular minority for craft, because these stories or, more precisely, the way we tell them carry so much weight and meaning. 

This is why the film’s conclusion registers to me as anything but open to interpretation. Because it’s loud and clear that, by still choosing to place its characters in the status quo and diluting whatever resistance it espouses, the film winds up rather myopic and self-defeating. The ending doesn’t offer possibilities but, worse, only affirms its inability to look for a proper closure, caught in a trap of its own making. So by the time About Us But Not About Us exhausts all the things it wants to say, one cannot help but realize that its articulations, at its core, look so lip-synced and contrived, like a wordy afterthought. –

About Us But Not About Us is now showing in cinemas nationwide as part of the 2023 Summer Metro Manila Film Festival, running until April 18.

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Lé Baltar

Lé Baltar is a Manila-based freelance journalist and film critic for Rappler. Currently serving as secretary of the Society of Filipino Film Reviewers (SFFR), Lé has also written for CNN Philippines Life, PhilSTAR Life, VICE Asia, Young STAR Philippines, among other publications. She is a fellow of the first QCinema International Film Festival Critics Lab.