We open on Balete Drive. If you’ve ever watched Okatokat or Magandang Gabi, Bayan in your childhood, or read at least one entry of Pinoy Ghost Stories, you’ll know this place is the setting of many hauntings. Then, a car parks. In it, two characters sit, waiting, until it’s quiet enough to have sex (‘car fun’). In between the disruptions to their tryst, they argue and unearth issues about their relationship that loom over them. Then, an all-too familiar ‘ping’ pierces through the air like a gunshot. But instead of a death, we witness a breakup. By the end of this scene, they both become each other’s spectres.
Here is where a different kind of haunting begins.
Cut to a year later.
Sila-Sila is a post-break up love story between Gab (Gio Gahol) and Jared(Topper Fabregas), and how that affects their social circles. Gab returns to Manila after a year of work in Cagayan De Oro and seems to carry more emotional baggage than his luggage allows. Despite excelling at his job and developing a(n ambiguous) relationship (with a married man), Gab has difficulty reconnecting with his friends, his old life, and his now ex-boyfriend. Against the backdrop of a high school reunion, Gab is forced to confront these spectres that seem to chase after him. In the beginning, he chooses to evade and to displace himself. But, as always, life finds a way to confront.
What the film captures so successfully is how one navigates through the ambiguities of modern queer relationships, not just romantic ones. The script by Daniel Saniana is conversational, intimate, and naturalistic; a loving portrait to chillnumans everywhere. It is made to feel as if the audience is like a member of the barkada being forced to catch up as well. Though not necessarily (always) lovable, each character and each relationship is specific, complex, and rooted in some history we are left to imagine. In casting mostly theater actors (most of whom are openly members of the LGBT+ community), each character is played lovingly and respectfully, and not like archetypes or caricatures we often see in Philippine cinema. Gio Gahol manages to physicalize his character’s rich inner life: loneliness, indecisiveness, and regret, especially during the quieter moments, while Topper Fabregas is charming, confrontational, and gripping in every scene. It’s so welcome to see this kind of ownership and representation of these LGBTQIA+ narratives by members of the community.
The acting and textual decisions work in synergy with the multiple long, static takes throughout the movie that keeps up the emotional momentum thanks to Giancarlo Abrahan’s fantastic direction and pacing. This is most obvious in the scene where Gab argues with his long-time friends Kev(Phi Palmos) and Nicole (Dwein Baltazar). The joyful reunion evolves into an inebriated fight (or is it really a intervention?) between the friends, then it quickly dissipates like a tiny tornado. The sequence is emotional and hilarious because it is almost too big given the nature of the film, the size of the apartment, and even the topics. But it seamlessly exhumes years worth of unaddressed problems that solidifies their historical connection and also explains their current distance from one another.
“Pwede bang mamaya na tayo mag-away ulit? Bati muna tayo ngayon.”
Though the film isn’t without its faults. The ending is rushed; a deus ex machina that did not feel tonally consistent or as realistically grounded as the rest of the film. The abrupt death of Jared’s mom seems to be a device to test their relationship and the scenes after it don’t feel as authentic as the rest of the film. In contrast to this, the most interesting parts are in the mundane: as it weaves so much smaller representations of each character’s inner life and their dynamics with one another.
Throughout the film, Gab always fails to open doors. At the start, he is unable to open the door to his own apartment, forcing him to ‘sleep over’ somewhere else with one of his lovers. Before the friends reunite for the first time, he is unable to enter Kev’s car as they tease him. But, most significantly, he is stuck multiple times inside Jared’s car because of a broken door lock. This latter instance is such an effective device that reveals their dynamic, Gab’s internal struggle (who initially refuses to ask for help opening the door, but eventually learns to accept help), and Jared’s values (who refuses to fix what he thinks isn’t that broken).
Gab is also unnaturally clumsy in public, and keeps on tripping. He hits his head on the glass door, falls from chairs, breaks bottles in the grocery, and goes into the swimming pool fully clothed. These small things show a carelessness and an unreliability in his character; a tendency to be closed off and self-centered. Jared is initially left to somewhat cleanup after Gab. This dynamic is flipped towards the end after Jared makes a mess after he falls into a drunken stupor and after his mother passes away.
There are also numerous shots of the characters holding hands. In moments where there’s a threat, the camera pans to show that Jared and Gab are connected intimately still, though not necessarily romantically. In a lesser film, these repeated shots can get tiresome. But the repetition here is used to reinforce this intimacy throughout different trials – a departure, a deception, a disconnection, a death – and each repetition bears new meaning layered on top of the previous iteration. “I love you” turns into “I love you, but I can’t be with you” turns into “I’m here for you, always“. In these physical, non-verbal promises, we find the truth about how these two characters’ souls have grown inseparable despite their misgivings and miscommunication.
“Whatever happens, we’ll always be family, right?”
The film is ultimately about the process of reclaiming spaces, and (re)discovering home and family. The film begins with Gab literally and figuratively homeless: physically and emotionally displaced from the life that he’s known because of his choice to disconnect. But as the film ends, Gab rediscovers home in Jared and in their friends. Only after leaving and loss do these characters learn the value of showing up for each other and themselves, and of home. Only through communication is there connection; only through attention and presence is there love.
In a way, the characters gravitate towards each other for the same reasons that they evade one another. This planetary motion – the closeness and eventual distance as each one orbits another – is an intricate snapshot of the tightness and distance within queer circles. By the end, we’re not left with answers to most of the film’s ambiguities. But instead, there is a sense of peace and comfort that, even in disarray, there is always a choice to return home and always a home to return to. It is a reminder that it is possible to love without being in a relationship, as long as we allow ourselves to recognize and reciprocate that love.
I watched ‘Sila-Sila’ on January 19, 2020, thanks to CINELAB: A Film Criticism Workshop by Richard Bolisay and Cinema Centenario.
- Gahol’s scene with the stranger in the car (Boo Gabunada) is so fantastic, it could be its own short film. Simultaneously chill and sexually charged. The ambiguous identity and relationship is what suspends the tension so well. Especially how the consummation is only implied (“Bakit baliktad yung t-shirt mo?”). One of my favorite moments in the film. Almost to an extent that it is out of place?
- Dwein Baltazar (who is also a wonderful director) and Phi Palmos, with their love-hate relationship with Gahol and Fabregas, adds another layer of hilarious history, and why his abrupt departure was such a fracture in their friendship.
- Meanne Espinosa made me grind my teeth and roll my eyes (in a good way!)
- It’s my first time seeing Juan Miguel Severo in a film and I don’t entirely agree with casting because it seems like it was just for the gay joke. They should’ve given him more material.
- I also wish they gave Jasmine Curtis-Smith more to work with! Earlier scenes with Topper Fabregas would’ve been better to set-up the family drama.
- Gio Gahol singing karaoke songs out of tune made me laugh in the cinema, mostly because I know how great of a singer he actually is.
- The only reason that I am able to remind myself that this is a film is because everyone is so goddamn attractive.
- I am excited to see more of this entire cast and crew’s projects!