A review of Tuhog (Veronica Velasco, 2013)
Tuhog is an engaging, if uneven, triptych that could have used a little more daring storytelling, a little more nuanced characterization, and a little less soap opera moments, in its exploration of three lives connected by an accident. Still, even if the film’s concept is not so new – Amores Perros is an obvious reference and a Grey’s Anatomy episode that had two people skewered by a pole and only one of them can survive may have been another inspiration – the movie manages to sustain viewers’ interest throughout the film, thanks to earnest performances by the cast and a breezy, sure-footed direction.
The movie begins with the said accident, with three people riding on a careening bus (bus conductor Fiesta [Eugene Domingo], recent retiree Tonio [Leo Martinez], and college student Caloy [Enchong Dee]) impaled together by a long iron pole when the bus hit a metal railing. The movie then proceeds to focus on the stories of each of the three, starting with Tonio who just retired from his job and is frustrated by his family’s lack of support for his idea to start a baking business. He spends most of his time with his Pusoy Dos friends, one of whom helps him find an ideal spot for the bakeshop. He spends all of his retirement money on a venture that is his ultimate secret passion until, gradually, he gets his family’s encouragement.
Fiesta is a cranky bus conductor who terrorizes all the bus drivers in her company. She gets a new driver, Renato (Jake Cuenca), when her previous driver resigned because he could no longer deal with her bad temper. Perhaps seeing Fiesta’s crankiness as a challenge, Renato, who is at least a decade younger and more attractive than Fiesta, woos her. She at first rebuffs his advances but eventually yields when she realizes he is serious in his pursuit. When Renato finds out the main source of Fiesta’s misery, he invites her to live with him and they spend some time as a couple, until Fiesta is confronted by Renato’s past.
The last story features Caloy, a college student staying at a boarding house and is in a long-distance relationship with Angel (Empress Schuck), whose family just transferred to Dumaguete. The lovers made a promise that they will lose their virginity to each other come the approaching sem break. In the meantime, they spend most of their nights Skyping or phone sexing, and their days ‘sexting’. One hilarious scene features an extremely bored class during a Philippine history lecture where the exasperated teacher just spoonfeeds her zombified students the answers to her own questions, until she notices Caloy engaged in a heated sexting exchange with Angel and humiliates him by reading the explicit text to the whole class. When Angel finally comes to Manila, Caloy is raring, like a bull about to enter the rodeo ring, only to find out through his friends that Angel has not been very forthcoming.
Aside from the bus incident, the three stories are also tied together by a common character that they encounter prior to riding the fateful bus, a character which the film actually could have done without as it does not add anything aside from tired voiceover clichés – always be ready for death because we don’t know when it will come, be kind to beggars, etcetera, etcetera.
All three stories are interesting on their own but the first two sacrifice some emotional truths because of their brevity. Tonio’s family relationship dynamic is not well fleshed out. He easily gets annoyed by everyone (his wife, his two kids, and especially his mocking son-in-law) but does not seem to do anything to improve the situation. I don’t think the son-in-law’s mocking (speaking very loud and very slow to Tonio) happens at all in real life, especially in the presence of a man’s wife and kids, and was only added by the writers to elicit laughter (which it did not during my viewing) and for Tonio to deliver his retort: “Retired ako, hindi retarded”, which was only met with, at best, a muted chuckle by the audience. When his family politely ask him at dinner if investing all of his retirement money on an enterprise that he has no background in is a wise decision, he suddenly gets petulant and scolds all of them for not trusting him. A couple of scenes later, all the scolded family members visit his bakeshop and were all smiles as if nothing dramatic has happened to strain their relations. Everyone needs some time to change moods, and I can understand that given the limited movie time, some transitory emotions get sacrificed to move the story forward, but I’d rather keep the emotional trajectory on a consistent path rather than shortchange the audience in favor of getting to the rest of the story within the time limit set by studio bosses. Remember that even if Amores Perros clocks in at 150 minutes, we never feel impatient watching it because we are deeply involved in the predicaments of the characters in each segment.
I felt that was the same problem, to a lesser extent, with the second story. The narrative of an ill-tempered woman whose heart is eventually softened by a persistent lover boy has been told (and filmed) countless times ever since Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, yet this story gets a twist in Tuhog. First, the woman is not your typical romcom leading lady. She is a tough, sharp-tongued bus conductor who has average looks. Second, the man is much younger and much fitter than the woman, which needs some explaining as to the reason why they would fall in love in the filmic world when it normally wouldn’t happen in the real one. The filmmakers are clearly playing with Eugene Domingo’s persona here: Domingo has, over the past few years, played the part of a middle-aged, average-looking woman who gets the romantic attention of younger, more attractive men (c.f., Dingdong Dantes and Zanjoe Marudo in Kimmy Dora, Richard Gutierrez in My Valentine Girls, Tom Rodriguez in Here Comes the Bride, Wendell Ramos in Wedding Tayo Wedding Hindi, and Edgar Allan Guzman in Bona). All of these portrayals are played for laughs: there’s just something fairy-taleish in seeing two people who have opposite traits fall in love. In Tuhog though, the relationship is played with a straight face.
You see, couples, before deciding to form romantic relationship with each other, take several things into consideration: race, religion, socio-economic status, age, etc. In Tuhog, the obvious age gap between Fiesta and Renato isn’t a big issue, and audiences shouldn’t make it one either. But a more obvious factor that could not be brushed aside, and is not very apparent in the film, is the importance of social exchange – that is, what each partner offers the other. Renato, no matter how lower-class he’s made to look, still looks like Jake Cuenca the movie star. Renato likes his fitted shirts that highlight his musculature. He is also very courteous and nice to Fiesta. Fiesta on the other hand is a middle-aged, plain-looking, grouchy, sad woman who is always mean to Renato. And yet…and yet… he finds something in her that makes him want to marry her soon after they first meet. That’s well and good. The problem is that the audience never gets to find out that special something. Yes, we sympathize with her when she gets berated by her demented father, but that redeeming quality that the writers assumed is inherent in Fiesta is only seen by Renato but not by us. We don’t fall in love with someone just because that someone is having so many problems and is so sad. In the real world, we say to this, “Lugi ang lalaki.”
My favorite segment is the third one because it is not as complicated as the other two that it achieves what it wants to achieve. Note that this is not an argument for simplicity in films. It is an argument for meticulousness in execution whether the story is simple or complex. Enchong Dee is fortunate because he’s one of those photogenic young actors who can actually act. And his honest portrayal plays a huge part in the success of the third segment. Even if the story seems so trivial (Your girlfriend cheats on you. So what? Find a replacement. Move on.), for teenagers, issues like these are more urgent and important than global ones. Global warming? Terrorism? Who cares? My girlfriend kissed another guy!
Most of the other actors do well. Eugene Domingo is consistent with her emotions, tapping into darker territory than her usual roles, and whatever misgivings I have with her character are obviously not her fault. Jake Cuenca, who I never really warmed up to as an actor, surprised me with his restraint here. Leo Martinez is less consistent in his performance. Some heartfelt scenes he nails but in lighter moments, his nasal Batangueño accent somehow always reminds me of his past comedic roles that it distracts my viewing. Empress Schuck is also commendable as the unfaithful girlfriend, but fails to impress in one crucial crying scene. Speaking of crying, I sure could have used less close-ups of crying faces in all three segments. I’m sure heavy emotions can be conveyed in less predictable manner.
On the whole, Tuhog is a welcome undertaking by a major studio – Skylight, a subsidiary of Star Cinema. It dares tackle themes that are not well-trodden in mainstream cinema. And even though it fails to live up to its full potential, the effort alone to deviate from what is deemed commercial is worth buying a ticket for.