“That Thing Called Tadhana” – 2015 BiFan Film Review

Antoinette Jadaone cut her teeth by directing commercials right out of college for several years before unveiling her first film, the bittersweet mockumentary “Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay” (2012).  Since then, she has steadily made a name for herself writing and directing a series of popular romantic comedies.  Her streak continues with “That Thing Called Tadhana” (also called “That Thing Called Destiny” and “That Thing Called Meant-to-Be,” 2015), a film that has racked up more than 120 million Pesos (US$3 million) in gross revenue in less than three weeks, making it the most successful independent film release in the Philippines.

Love is a beautiful, painful, and frustrating concept in Jadaone’s new feature.  Angelica Panganiban (Mace), the female half of the film’s will-they-won’t-they couple, spends a majority of the picture’s runtime crying, wailing and condemning her former boyfriend to various forms of torture and suffering, her bouts of explosive cursing broken up only by her manic Pollyannaish reminiscences of her relationship before it imploded. Yet, despite indulging in syrupy – oftentimes corny – narrative and visual tropes, “That Thing Called Tadhana” breathes fresh air to a genre that has been so critically ghettoized for far too long.

Angelica Panganiban (left, as Mace) and JM De Guzman (Anthony) in "That Thing Called Tadhana." (still courtesy of the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival)
Angelica Panganiban (left, as Mace) and JM De Guzman (Anthony) in “That Thing Called Tadhana.” (still courtesy of the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival)

The film opens on Panganiban’s radiant face and present predicament: she’s in Rome, she’s trying to get back home, and with furrowed brows and teary eyes, she is stuffing the contents of her overweight suitcase into a steel trashcan.  Coming to her rescue is the strong but silent JM De Guzman (Anthony), who offers to carry her excess goods in his little carry-on case. She struggles a bit with whether to trust the handsome stranger or not but eventually relents, a single tear rolling down her cheek as she hands him her coat. A sense of relief ensues as her luggage is weighed again and she finally gets her boarding pass. Such a situation could have been banal with someone else behind the camera, but with Jadaone at the helm, her trust in her actors’ ability enables the right emotional key to be pressed at just the right time.

This being a romantic comedy, it behooves the director to cast an on-screen couple with the right amount of chemistry, and Panganiban and De Guzman have great rapport with one another as they set off on what becomes a 24-hour road trip. De Guzman is the new millennial male, inhabiting all the traditional masculine ideals but being more sensitive to the needs of those around him. As for Panganiban’s Mace, although everything about her screams jilted lover, what separates her from being some shrill, misogynistic caricature is Jadaone’s dialogue and also the way Panganiban never “Meg Ryan’s” it up.  At the start of the film she is all bluster and pent-up rage, but Panganiban never allows her character to try to win us over, either through second-rate physical comedy or pushing her cuteness onto the audience. Each scene, gesture and word spoken feels natural and earned. Panganiban’s decision to stick with her understated portrayal of the character has paid off for the actress since she has garnered several awards for her performance.

Aside from the acting, one could say that there are two romantic storylines going on in the film, the first being the flirtation between Mace and Anthony, and the second being Jadaone’s own love for the less known areas of the Philippines.   Jadaone’s decision to set the picture in Luzon, the main island of the more than 7,000 that comprise the Philippine archipelago, will be a delight to those who have never visited. Cinematographer Sasha Palomares, who was nominated for the prestigious Gawad Urian Award, rarely if never turns away from making one or both of the leads the main focal point of each shot for a majority of the film’s runtime.  However, in choice opportune moments, specifically when Guzman and Panganiban finally get to Sagada, Palomares allows the Philippine landscape and skyline to overtake the mise en scène, dwarfing even the two leads in beauty and grandeur.

I could go on and on about this picture. It really does encompass so much of what makes a great romantic comedy – one that has also gained traction outside of the Philippines with a whole host of awards and selections at foreign festivals, the biggest so far being this year’s BiFan Film Festival.  Antoinette Jadaone may not have reinvented the wheel with this film, but it’s impossible to not be drawn into the picture’s charm, be it the acting, the beautiful Philippine countryside shots, the meta-narrative aspects of the two leads commenting on love and its relation to the rom-com genre, or the romantic story underpinning everything. “That Thing Called Tadhana” embraces all the tropes of the rom-com.  By never shying away from the reality of human relationships it shows us a world wherein the real world and fiction can coexist.

This is the second article in a new series of reviews by Meniscus Magazine reporter Rex Baylon titled “New Philippine Cinema,” which focuses on rising Filipino filmmakers and their work.  “That Thing Called Tadhana” will screen at the 2015 Bucheon International Film Festival on July 21.  For ticket information, go to bifan.kr.