Mr. and Mrs. Cruz (Philippines, 2018) [SDAFF 2018]

Among the crop of Philippine independent writer-directors who emerged with their debut feature-length films in the early 2010s (including Mikhail Red, Shireen Seno, Marie Jamora, Ara Chawdhury, Hannah Espia), Sigrid Andrea Bernardo is one who has seemingly made the romantic comedy her preferred template for storytelling. Beginning with her 2013 debut feature Anitas Last Cha-cha through to 2017’s I See You, which became one of the highest-grossing independent films in Philippine film history, Bernardo has presented unlikely romantic pairings that serve not only as the focus of entertainment but also as sociocultural expressions of (the diversity of) female experiences/perspectives within contemporary society.

Following the footsteps of a prepubescent girl and her first love in Anitas Last Cha-cha, the titular sixty-something of Lorna (2014) looking for love that transcends age, and Lea of I See You combatting temporary blindness as well as her fiancé’s infidelity is Angela in Mr. and Mrs. Cruz. Angela presents her share of love, heartbreak, and tough-mindedness, which have come to constitute the Bernardo heroine. Yet she constitutes the least interesting character in Bernardo’s filmography thus far. The film overall is weighed down by a surprising triteness due to the overwhelming amount of rom-com tropes that it packs in—for its characters, beginning with Angela, and every other aspect of the film—without either adapting or subverting them to produce some emotional insights; surprising since such an element pervades Bernardo’s previous films.

Angela Cruz (Ryza Cenon), or Gela for short, arrives at paradisiacal Palawan, an island located south-west of Manila, to begin her trip of soul-searching after ditching her groom-to-be on the day of their wedding. However, she is given the title of ‘Mrs. Cruz’ when the tour that she has signed up for also includes Rafael Cruz (JC Santos) and the tourist company has mistaken them to be a newly married couple due to their shared last name. Despite some reluctance, Gela and Raffy agree to continue the ruse in order to economise their expenses. Unbeknownst to Gela, coincidentally enough, Raffy’s backstory is precisely the guy jilted on his wedding day. Pushed into each other’s company, the pair embarks on a series of long conversations on love, marriage, and being alone as well as their personal tastes on just about everything else. All the while, Palawan’s sights provide stunning wallpaper for their conversations and tourist consumption. One can easily take a guess as to what follows, even though the film does not provide the proverbial formation of a couple and happy ending at its conclusion. So, really, what else is there to say?

All cynicism (and boredom) aside, of course, predictability does not always already detract from a film’s capacity to generate spectatorial absorption and/or engagement. One of the fundamental qualities of genre films that one relishes is that hard-fought (though not always attained) tension between repetition and difference. Sure, that Gela and Raffy just happen to represent the contrasting sides of an aborted wedding makes for a nice spin on the ‘opposites attract’ formula. And, yes, the narrative structure of Mr. and Mrs. Cruz clevely switches between past and present in order to incrementally give Gela and Raffy emotional and psychological depth in the course of their present-day conversation-filled jaunts throughout Palawan. The film even dips, towards the end, into the always appealing territory of serendipity, of two people having already met each other a long time ago and thus linked by a significant, shared—albeit brief and forgotten—past. And, initially, the spectator is just as curious as Gela and Raffy about getting to know them, as individuals and as a makeshift pair of friends and perhaps even lovers, given the complementary nature of their respective break-ups intertwined with the physical journey that is ahead of them.

But as their journey progresses, their conversations become ever more inward-looking and repetitive, and rather disconnected from their physical surroundings, so that the film could have taken place literally anywhere else, despite the premise of the last name mix-up on a vacation tour. (As for their social surroundings, rounding out their group tour are two couples, one elderly and one around their age, but both of which are merely cardboard cutouts that neither contribute to nor take away from the narrative; to call them ‘characters’ would give them too much credit, hence the parenthesis.) Not to say that actors Cenon and Santos are at fault here. They perform Gela and Raffy’s back-and-forth verbal volleying with aplomb. Unfortunately, their conversations—which include some antagonistic exchanges, a bout of excessive drinking, dancing and vomiting, separating from the group tour, and an endless number of one-liners that prompt only wincing instead of appreciative wink-wink hahas—end up being one jointly authored long-winded and, let’s face it, insufferable whine about (finding) oneself.

One could argue that the film is consciously playing with such tropes. But it takes itself too seriously for the argument to hold. And, by film’s end, does it even matter?

Mr. and Mrs. Cruz is showing on November 9 and 15 at the San Diego Asian Film Festival.