Not just a movie

Ferdinand S. Topacio - The Philippine Star
Not just a movie
Just A Stranger, starring Anne Curtis and Marco Gumabao, is a shadowy tale hovering in that dangerous place where deliverance and damnation diverge

Film review: Just A Stranger

MANILA, Philippines —  Just A Stranger is that rare Filipino movie with no real heroes. All of the leads possess at least one flaw that makes them unsympathetic. In that sense, it is a daring movie, a film noir in a local industry that has a proclivity for the perfect protagonist.

Anne Curtis is 30-something Mae, married to rich older man Phil, played by Edu Manzano. (As an aside, since Phil is much older than Mae, does that make him “Phil Oldhusband”?) She evidently married him for his money; he for her youth and beauty. It is a loveless marriage of convenience, and bored Mae travels the world sans hubby, who would rather bury himself in business. In one of her sojourns (to Lisbon, Portugal), she skips a guided tour with two friends due to an illness — fibromyalgia — she meets Jericho (Marco Gumabao) on a beach where she goes to sunbathe alone after the pain subsides.

Jericho (Jekjek for short) is 19 years old(!). But this is not a coming-of-age movie, not a Minsan Sa Isang Tag-init (1983), or Summer of ’42 (1971). For Jekjek, the ne’er-do-well son of a Filipino diplomat, is far from virginal; in fact, he is on that same beach hunting for women. He offers to take Mae on a tour; she reluctantly agrees. He then hits on her in a most forward way, boasting of his sexual prowess. Initially repelled, Mae’s amusement and curiosity get the better of her, and in short order, the two wind up in bed. This is the first time, we later learn, that Mae has cheated on Phil. And a tragic affair ensues with grave consequences for all.

The character studies sally forth. Jekjek resents his parents’ overbearing ways but is too spineless to resist. Anne, obviously a gold digger, is now also an adulteress.  Phil is a ruthless businessman who also cheats on Mae. Only Seira Briones, as Febbie, Jekjek’s too-good-to-be-true girlfriend, comes off as “sinless”.

Speaking of “sinless”, it is the concept of sin and salvation that is the film’s recurring thread. As noir, the film explores the dark side of human nature. But it also shows the redeeming qualities in every person. Phil may be hard-nosed, but in Edu’s finely-nuanced performance, we are afforded glimpses of genuine concern for his wife, even after her infidelity. Anne is a typical rich man’s wife, immersed in the trappings of affluence, yet she throws them all away for what has become true love. Jericho himself, inspired by love, puts in a mighty effort to stand up to his parents and become his own man. That the movie is bookended by the confession of Mae to a neophyte priest, boldly accentuates its countervailing themes of sinning and salvation by asking, in the final act: when are moral transgressions ever justified or forgivable? The film leaves the answer to the viewers, because as the cinematic Fates would have it, the promised liberation does not come into fruition.

Anne, continuing the improvement in her thespic skills exhibited in last year’s Sid and Aya: Not A Love Story, acts up a storm here as the morally-conflicted wife. Attacking her role with depth and introspection, she was able to capture and express the myriad emotions a woman in her situation would feel embroiled in an adulterous affair with a man 10 years younger. Her exceptionally youthful looks, however, understates the May-December aspect, as she does not look that much older than her leading man. Edu gives a bravura performance as the calculating rich older husband with flashes of compassion hidden under a cold façade. The support, composed of veteran troupers, also turn in solid executions worthy of the film’s serious tone.

The weak spot is Marco, who strives mightily, but fails, to live up to the role of the young man enmeshed in the intricacies of being in a torrid romance with an older woman. He has surely inherited some acting chops from his actor-father, and he is sufficiently hunky and appealing to convince the audience that a wealthy woman would break all conventions for his sake, but his portrayal comes off as shallow and predictable. And acting opposite Anne who has been honing her craft since she was 12, the disparity is glaring. Cherie Gil’s talents are also wasted, her character being a one-dimensional plot point better left to a lesser name. 

In fine, the film has a decidedly European feel, and not just because it was partly shot in Lisbon; its dark undertones, vitiated characters and a subject-matter still talked about in whispers, lend it a gravitas missing in many local films. It is not your ordinary movie, or for that matter, not just a movie: it is a shadowy tale hovering in that dangerous place where deliverance and damnation diverge.

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