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A confession: I’m not one for romance. It’s not like the genre is creatively inferior or intellectually bankrupt. On the contrary, one can argue that it is much more difficult to reimagine the ways people fall in and out of love and the manner by which those stories are told. In an age of cynicism, it’s been easier to suspend disbelief for speculative science fiction rather than love at first sight or happily ever after.
Maybe it’s personal hang-ups (that I haven’t resolved yet) or maybe the genre just isn’t for me. But whatever feelings one has about romance, one has to acknowledge the chokehold it has on society. Commercially, the romance genre runs Philippine mainstream cinema and television, and ideologically, it influences how we form and create relationships and expectations, establish boundaries with one another, and even see ourselves as individuals.
But recently, much of the mainstream market has been saturated with mediocre films focused on heterosexual relationships (ehem, He’s All That). While queer romances aren’t immune from this bullshit (ehem, Single All The Way. See a pattern here, Netflix?), more attention and funding has been slowly given to the creation of media that centers or touches on queer romances. From coming-of-age stories such as Love of Siam (2007) to adult arthouse reimaginings of Greek myth such as Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), many queer romances have breathed new life into the genre, expanding the definitions of love, what it means to fall for someone, and how that journey is depicted onscreen.
In honor of the blessed and the brokenhearted this Valentine’s Day, I’d like to suggest a few films that touch on queer romances that may have never been on your radar:
1. Matthias & Maxime (2019; dir. Xavier Dolan)
Matthias (Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas) and Maxime (Xavier Dolan) have been best friends since childhood. Matthias has a caring girlfriend and a successful career as a business executive, while Maxime is desperately finishing his applications to Australia, hoping for better opportunities and distance from his abusive mother. But when their participation in a short film requires them to kiss, things get complicated. It’s not like they haven’t kissed before, right? It’s going to be okay.
Except it isn’t. When the onscreen intimacy cracks everything open and awakens dormant feelings within them and between them, a wrench is thrown into their present and future. Writer-director Xavier Dolan traces and treads the boundaries between platonic and romantic, and the film is at its best when the two seem inseparable and generous. While Dolan has explored sexuality and society in his previous films Laurence Anyways and I Killed My Mother, he does so only within contained worlds, concerning family members. In Matthias & Maxime, he expands through a playful tone the geography of love, showing how acts of questioning affect the dynamics of brotherhoods, too; unafraid to show the many ways they change and the many more important ways they don’t.
2. Rafiki (2018; dir. Wanuri Kahiu)
Set in Kenya, Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) become friends despite belonging to families with a political rivalry. Skirting danger as they flirt publicly and fall in love in a country where homosexuality is banned, Rafiki succeeds in its simple storytelling by tapping into Afrobubblegum sensibilities that keep things sweet despite the subject matter being tough to swallow.
Rafiki neither veers away from societal judgment nor does it insulate its protagonists from the repercussions of their choices within their given circumstances. To do so would be to erase these inequities, preventing them from being seen by the world. But it doesn’t resort to fatalism either, continuing to resist the punishing pressures of the government both onscreen and offscreen. Instead of giving way to harsh realities, Rafiki creates a fictional space where reunion is possible, where death is not always the final result, and where Black joy is not punished, but celebrated.
3. End of the Century (2019; dir. Lucio Castro)
When Ocho (Juan Barberini) and Javi (Ramón Pujol) first hook up, it seems like just another stopover. Their post-hookup interactions find them traveling the streets of Barcelona, having conversations in museums, and shared silences overlooking the city. But the one-night stand reveals itself to be an unexpected reunion, a continuation of a relationship between the two which started two decades before, when they were both still in the closet.
Featuring one of the best needle drops in recent memory, Lucio Castro’s End of the Century is a beautiful and intimate decade-spanning fantasy that ruminates on the differences in the choices available to gay men and the endless string of “what ifs” that result from these. Unraveling in a non-linear fashion, End of the Century is a film that blurs the past, present, and future through nostalgia and magic realism, creating moments where the imagined and the experienced simultaneously enrich their romance. The result is a story that is much like their love: epic and never-ending.
4. Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy (2013; dir. Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit)
It began with an artistic question: Can you turn tweets into an expansive and engaging fictional world? Turns out, the answer is yes. You may think I’m referring to Zola, but I am referring to Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy by writer-director Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit.
Most widely known for his Netflix film Happy Old Year, Thamrongrattanarit takes 410 real tweets by @marylony, orders them chronologically, and creates a screenplay set in high school from it, following Mary (Patcha Poonpiriya) and her friend Suri (Chonnikan Netjui) as they attempt to make it through their senior year.
The film is like a loaded adolescent fever dream: spontaneous trips to Paris, sudden accidents, meet-cutes with strangers who will soon reject you, anxieties about college applications and the future, trips to the forest, yearbook photoshoots assignments that will eventually be scrapped and censored, and perpetual questions about the world around you (which seems more and more like a cult) and the authorities that attempt to wring everything from you. All of these are recognizable but they are presented in such an original and lighthearted way that it is at times overwhelming. Then there’s the friendship and the love, which remains even as everything else no longer makes sense.
Even in its disjointedness, Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy is a miracle; the kind that makes you wish you had a time machine.
Available on MUBI in select countries.
5. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2021; dir. Ryusuke Hamaguchi)
While the mainstream will know Ryūsuke Hamaguchi from his Academy Award-nominated Murakami adaptation Drive My Car, it was his Silver Bear-winning film Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy that turned me into a fan. A triptych centered on romance, coincidence, and imagination, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy follows the story of three leading women: the first on an unexpected love triangle, the second on an attempted honeypot. But it is the third episode, “Once Again,” that is the reason for its inclusion in this list.
Set in a world where a virus returns Japan to its pre-internet phase, Natsuko (Fusako Urabe) chances upon her classmate (Aoba Kawai) while in an opposite escalator. Accompanying her home, Natsuko confronts her about her life and the dissolution of their romantic relationship. Confused, the woman reveals that her name is Aya and that they’ve mistaken each other for their former classmates.
With richly written characters trapped in morally ambiguous circumstances, Hamaguchi uses misunderstanding and serendipity to open up a portal for confession and catharsis. Poetic and gripping because of its oddities, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is a film whose love permeates the screen and whose effects linger long after the credits roll.
Available on Eventive. – Rappler.com
For the expanded selection of queer romance films, check out this Letterboxd list.