Friday, March 07, 2014

Unfriend (2014)

Joselito Altarejos' Unfriend: Of Love and Other Demons

Joselito Altarejos opens Unfriend with black and white image of two boys in a perfect state of romantic bliss. On top of an abandoned building, they whimsically exchange longing gestures to each other. It is as if they were the only lovers left in the world.

The opening image is of course far from reality. Altarejos deliberately segues to the same two boys having sex in a dingy and dimly lit room whose walls are peppered with posters bearing demons and other video game monsters. Gone are the serenity, sincerity, and the careless euphoria of the film’s monochrome opening dream sequence, only to be replaced by the sweaty and graceless tryst between two men in the end of their relationship.

The break-up does not sit well with David (Sandino Martin), who at fifteen is the younger of the lovers. He retires to his room, where he keeps a shrine dedicated to his former boyfriend (Angelo Ilagan), and for the next few hours, initiates an attempt to win him back through desperate text messages and Skype calls. When reuniting seems impossible, he decides to embark on a mission to broadcast to the world the love that his ex-lover just threw away.

Altarejos, in collaboration with Lex Bonife, has etched quite a successful career tackling queer concerns in the country through his films. Ang Lalake sa Parola (The Man in the Lighthouse, 2007), his first film, puts in its center a homosexual romance in the midst of traditional intolerance. Altarejos was able to confront his audience with the possibility of tackling certain issues without any context of exoticizing or sensationalizing the lifestyle. Ang Lihim ni Antonio (The Secret ofAntonio, 2008), Kambyo (2008), and Little Boy, Big Boy (2008), despite the variety of approach, are all created with the same intent of depicting queer lifestyle absent the typical cross-dressing, brash humor, and other commonly conceived notions of homosexuality that has been depicted by mainstream media.

Ang Laro ng Buhay ni Juan (The Game of Juan's Life, 2009) combines Altarejos’ knack for exploring queer themes with the blend of real-time filmmaking and focus on social realism that was gaining popularity among Filipino independent filmmakers. Pink Halo Halo (2010) is the director’s tender account of his own coming-of-age as a homosexual boy growing up in a military family living in a very rural area. On the other hand, Laruang Lalake (Boy Toys, 2010), by documenting the struggles of a director from production to exhibition, has Altarejos tackling the prejudice the type of cinema he is specializing in has been receiving from most sectors. Without abandoning the main concerns that define queer cinema, Altarejos was able to widen his canvass by ticklish issues that are inherent to the lifestyle but do not pertain specifically to it.

Unfriend, on one hand, is an indictment of the modern world that is fast becoming too reliant on technology. By focusing on a protagonist who is inseparable from his various communication gadgets, the film criticizes the very illusion of connectivity that most communication technology propagates.

In one scene, David, on a mission to purchase credits to resume his online stalking of his ex-boyfriend, is oblivious to the intolerant insults being thrown by his neighbors. When he temporarily snaps out of the spell and responds to the insults, he becomes aware of his surroundings. At that point, David withdraws from his self-wallowing and becomes witness to problems that seem greater than his own.

The film, on the other hand, is also a potent observation of obsession. As soon as Altarejos retracts from the blatant romanticism of the film’s introduction, he proceeds to detail the less endearing qualities of the specific homosexual relationship that has been defined by the virtual world it mostly exists in. Altarejos seems to blame the blurring of the line between love and fatal obsession to the convenience technology provides. David, with his consistent and quick switching between pained lover and sex-starved cruiser, exemplifies the youth that has been conditioned to trivialize emotions.

Unfriend shocks not because of the event that would eventually unfold after such a protracted depiction of a very banal life. The film’s culminating event is after all hardly a surprise since Altarejos has made it clear that the inspiration for the film is the much-publicized shooting incident that happened inside a mall a couple of years ago. The film shocks precisely because its unabashed portrayal of current attitudes and demeanors are too close to reality for any comfort. Infused with love and all other demons, there is no predicting as to what kind of monsters we can all become.

(First published in Rappler.)

No comments: