Milan (Olivia Lamasan, 2004)
In Sana Maulit Muli (Hopefully, Once More, 1995), director Olivia Lamasan tells the love story of Jerry (Aga Muhlach) and Agnes (Lea Salonga), whose romance was suddenly suspended by the latter's migration to California. Years later, Jerry follows Agnes to California and discovers that the latter has changed from a sweet and subservient girl to an independent career woman. In trying to woo back Agnes, Jerry abandons his promising career as an ad executive back home to become a blue collar worker and in so doing, exposes the hardships, the realities and the very common injustices of working abroad. Alas, the movie ends in a conventional note, with the two lovebirds reuniting in a busy street in Manila. Sana Maulit Muli, which momentarily captured my imagination with its portrayal of the American dream as both restrictive yet liberating, disintegrates into formulaic tedium, where man, with all his incurable weaknesses and insecurities, still gets the woman in the end, simply because that's how mainstream cinematic romances ordinarily conclude.
Years later, Lamasan, once again, sets a love story in a distant land. Milan details the attempt of Lino (Piolo Pascual) to look for Mary Grace (Iza Calzado), his missing wife who a mere week after their wedding, left the Philippines to work in Milan and since then, has not communicated with him. He deviates from his mission when he meets Jenny (Claudine Barretto), a shrewd and street-smart Filipina who has been living and working in Milan and has decided to help Lino look for his wife. Lino and Jenny become romantically entangled, as the former finds a job and finally, a direction to his once unguided life.
This time, Lamasan expands his canvass, determined to infuse the syrupy romance with authentic stories of these Filipino citizens working in Milan through the several real interviews with them that are interspersed throughout the narrative. Although the procedure is jarring, primitive and inordinate, with the sudden transition from glossy studio cinematography to documentary footage might strain the eye and not to mention the even more sudden retraction of cinematic fantasy of screenwriters' Lamasan and Raymond Lee's romantic fairy tale to the harsher and more moving portraits of real Filipinos in Milan is somewhat uncoordinated, the inclusion of these interviews give the film a more poignant feel.
As for the film itself, it's certainly nothing extraordinary. The acting suffices most of the time, with its two leads (Pascual and Barretto) complementing the picturesque scenery (shot by cinematographer Shayne Clemente like a travelogue, with the gondolas of Venice, the vineyards of the Italian countryside, and other famous tourist places framed into the drama without a hint of subtlety) with their manufactured good looks, charm and acting style. Calzado gives a quietly affecting performance as Lino's emotionally tortured wife whose life has deteriorated into total disarray.
Lamasan has improved. From the unabashed sentimentality and unsuited reliance on formulaic filmmaking of Sana Maulit Muli, she has at least taken some risks: of mixing romance with documentary filmmaking, of unmasking Milan of some of its majestic sheen by negating its illustrious reputation with real and fictional (the heartbreaking trials of Lino's wife; the pregnancy of Vangie (Ilonah Jean) with her co-boarder despite having their respective families in the Philippines; the horrifying border-crossing hike) horror stories of the Filipino workers. Milan ends with a kiss, as with most other mainstream romances that equate jovial affairs of the heart with momentary escapism from the real world's more pressing woes. I'll be more forgiving this time since Lamasan, at least, gave that penultimate kiss a bit of a bittersweet flavor. The disarming weight of those overseas workers' struggles and plights has been temporarily lifted during that postcard-worthy moment of barefaced fantastic hallucination.