DAGUPAN CITY, Pangasinan – The Star Cinema romance film is a brand unto itself, and to underestimate its power, especially in the Philippines, is a mistake.
Of the gamut of storytellers that toy with the genre, Cathy Garcia-Molina is one of the people who understands this best. With a filmography of Filipino classics and box-office record-breakers, Garcia-Molina has built a career around stories with broad commercial appeal; knowledgeable that it’s more difficult to make something that appeals to the many. With this comes the potency of emotional connection: how a good cry can be cathartic, a well-timed joke can be uplifting, and how these two can be mixed in the same scene to shattering effect – one that keeps audiences coming back for more.
Diving deeper into Garcia-Molina’s work, much of her genius lies in how she pits romance, career, and familial duty against one another, pulling her protagonists in all directions to capture something unique about the Filipino experience. One More Chance sees Popoy and Basha’s relationship dissolving as Basha decides to leave their firm, It Takes a Man and a Woman finds Laida and Miggy reconciling while working together, and Hello, Love, Goodbye forces Ethan and Joy to choose between pursuing their relationship or their dreams. In each film, love (and the act of losing it) is constantly complicated by class struggle, and the process of reckoning with how we are tied to our material realities not only becomes a source of necessary tension, but also grounds characters in ways that makes them relatable to audiences.
Love at First Stream touches on these same themes: Desperate for independence from a crowded household, V (Daniela Stranner) tries to make a living during the pandemic as a vlogger. She enlists the help of her charming neighbor and former love interest Tupe (Anthony Jennings) and her cousin-turned-foster-sister Megumi (Kaori Oinuma), to little success. But when a livestreamed dating show with Megumi’s heartthrob classmate Gino (Jeremiah Lisbo) garners her the attention she’s needed, V lets herself fall down the digital rabithole, discovering the price of fame and fortune in the process.
In many ways, Love at First Stream is a test of branding: the first of its actors, the second of its story.
Branding a love team
In the past, Garcia-Molina has wielded branding to her favor. By taking advantage of her actors’ reputations and established personas, she is able to play with audience expectation, subverting or submitting to romantic desires. The act hammers in the kilig that comes with (re)discovering your favorite loveteam and the lungkot resulting from the disintegration of their chemistry. But by placing the spotlight on four newcomers, Garcia-Molina takes on the difficult task of introducing them to her audiences, and with it comes the responsibility of highlighting their strengths and hiding their weaknesses.
There are moments when she succeeds. V and Tupe’s “date” makes the world melt away, the silence bringing the two closer after a long period of performativity, while Gino and Megumi’s hug is filled with youthful static, the awkwardness a byproduct of their interactions solely being online. These snippets where Garcia-Molina lets kids be kids, feeling puppy love for the first time, is when Love at First Stream is at its most addictive and satisfying.
The talents themselves have promise: Stranner delivers the dramatics but struggles to make the largeness of her character believable throughout, while Oinuma is most effective when she lets her guard down, though the exact reasons for her guard to be up remain unexplored. And while I am admittedly biased towards Lisbo (his smile! his eyes! his coyness!), by playing up his niceness too early, he sandpapers the edges that makes his devilish bully captivating and instead becomes a prototypical Atenean-in-the-making (derogatory, coming from an Atenean).
None of these are necessarily their fault: the text itself lacks specificity in its character dynamics. In the past, Garcia-Molina’s characters have had a rich history and a deep source of baggage to pull out from, and that’s what made them work. But V’s baggage is introduced too late, and Megumi and Gino’s are simply carry-ons.
Which is why, of the four, the standout is Anthony Jennings, who never allows himself to be the main character and, instead, is always in service of V, even if he’s simply watching her stream. When he’s charming, he grounds it in realism, rarely veering into the territory of the pa-pogi-pogi school of acting (a term belonging to my acting mentor, Missy Maramara). As an outsider to the livestreaming shenanigans, it would have been far more interesting to explore his vantage point.
The issue with product integration
There are many problems with the script and Garcia-Molina’s direction that loosen its tether to reality: the inconsistency of the mask-wearing given the pandemic, the indulgent self-referentiality to previous Garcia-Molina films, among others. But the core issues with Love at First Stream are rooted in its partnership with Kumu. Co-produced by the livestreaming app, the film has been referred to online as a glorified, two hour-long advertisement: instructing characters (and adjacently, the audience) how to use the platform to earn money and many of its crucial revelations happening amongst the Kumunity.
How does one create an interesting film centered on a product that’s paying the bills?
In Emily Nussbaum’s essay on US television and product integration, she details how product placement boomed during the economic recession, a seemingly necessary tactic to keep shows with low ratings afloat. Given the absence of cinemas and the ABS-CBN shutdown, Star Cinema has understandably looked elsewhere for not only money but stories. Partnership with Kumu is not only an opportunity to tap into an undiscovered market, but also an opportunity to depict an entire online world whose reality has yet to be brought on screen.
It’s no longer about whether or not product integration should happen. It’s already been happening. In Feng Shui, Kris Aquino is handed the bagua along with cans of Chunkee Corned Beef, while in One More Chance, John Lloyd Cruz says his signature “ingat” from his Biogesic ad. The question is whether it is done well enough that it doesn’t interfere with the story, lest one be criticized by Lourd de Veyra, like what happened to My Little Bossings (a terrible film that deserved it, and more).
As a former casual livestreamer myself, Love at First Stream does capture the addictive nature of Kumu, especially for those who are lonely or in need. In the last two years, it has become an avenue for artists to make a living and a way for people to reward and get close to their idols. It’s possible to develop authentic relationships and connections with strangers via Kumu — I’ve seen it happen plenty of times.
But it’s clear the story strains given its commercial imperatives. How does one capture how fame and fortune is habit-forming without vilifying the tools by which that habit is obtained? How do you encourage people to separate their public and private lives without discouraging users from downloading the app? How do you criticize how capitalism makes its way even into our homes without disrespecting the clients funding your enterprise?
It’s not as if Love at First Stream is incapable of blending it seamlessly. In fact, it has with Tupe, whose love for V is a given, but is barred, consciously or unconsciously, by class differences. Their romance is rekindled only when V discovers that their interactions generate views and she finds out that he is helping a relative sell a condominium.
The crucial moment happens when V celebrates having earned her Kumu money by ordering Chixboy, only to have Tupe be the delivery boy. It’s a simple yet heartbreaking scene that promotes Chixboy by associating the brand with both celebration and job security amidst a pandemic. But it’s also one that deeply humanizes Tupe and, adjacently every delivery boy, to the audiences. It was so effective that it made me google if the brand was real, so that I could try it out.
There are many of these moments when it’s on the verge of saying something important: about the generational divide between V and her mother, the ethics of romantic life in an increasingly anonymous space, the invisible line between private and public, among others. But in its preoccupation to satisfy its demands to its stakeholders, the story disappointingly pivots for safety, choosing to abandon its most interesting routes (of which there were many).
That doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. I still found myself laughing, cringing, and feeling for the characters, and there are glimmers of that Garcia-Molina magic. But more than anything, Love at First Stream is an important lesson on branding and product integration and how promising stories and actors can lose their luster when catering to corporate power. – Rappler.com