Filipino romantic drama Here and There opens with feisty heroine Len (Janine Gutierrez) engaging in an online war of words with the earnest and handsome Cabs (JC Santos). The time is March 2020, and Manila is in the first week of its COVID-induced lockdown. A seemingly innocent remark made by Len in regards to the restrictions of quarantine has sent Cabs into a rage. Len’s privilege makes her unable to see the suffering that the mandate is causing the working class, more specifically individuals such as Cabs, who is unable to return home to Cebu to see his family and is instead forced to take up a job as a delivery driver to support them. Len, meanwhile, is profoundly bull-headed, the type of individual who craves the last word. And so begins yet another film that uses the COVID pandemic as mere window dressing in service of cheap genre thrills. The implicit challenge for films situated within this suddenly ubiquitous “sub-genre” is how to distinguish themselves from the deluge of similarly shaped movies being made with lockdown as the inciting action. It’s a challenge that Here and There isn’t up to; director JP Habac and screenwriters Omar Sortijas, Kristin Barrameda, and Alex Gonzales certainly seem to think that they’re saying something meaningful about the effects of COVID on both a global and personal scale, but the reality is that the slop they’re peddling has all the depth of a puddle.
It doesn’t take long for Len and Cabs to meet virtually through a Zoom session; as luck would have it, the two have mutual friends. A begrudging respect leads to nonstop texting and night-long FaceTime calls, as the two begin to develop deeper feelings for one another. Here and There is yet the latest film to ask what love in the time of COVID looks like, and whether it can meaningfully blossom and survive in a pandemic? A question that viewers might be more inclined to ask: what exactly is going on with the film’s portrayal of Len? She’s a fiercely intelligent and passionate twenty-something grad student, and it’s these very attributes that cause her loved ones to label her as difficult. She has never had a relationship, a fact of which her two best friends incessantly remind her; they stop short of calling her frigid —somewhat surprising given the way the filmmakers seem to perceive her — but it’s implied in every conversation and look. Cabs, on the other hand, is a saint, the type of guy who always speaks in a soothing tone, rallies for the underprivileged, and sings and plays the guitar. He even looks good shirtless. The deck is so stacked in Cabs’ favor that it comes as no surprise when the film further attempts to vilify Len by having her react in a reasonably stressed-out manner upon learning that her mother, a nurse at the local hospital, might have COVID. Her quite understandable response so upsets Cabs that he breaks off all contact, which seems extreme, yet Here and There is always quick to take his side. The film takes great pleasure in punishing Len, and while it’s fair to read this whole subplot involving Len’s mother as an argument that most people did not understand the severity of the pandemic until it affected them personally, the sum treatment of Len feels a whole lot like schadenfreude.
The ending, too, is especially perplexing, as the film seems to believe its bittersweet endnote is somehow touchingly realistic, when really it’s but another opportunity to simply dump on Len, even when Cabs’ actions are wholly deplorable. The COVID content only manages to rise to the level of an after-school special, and the “romance” is virtually nonexistent; given those seem to be the film’s twin axes, it’s not clear what we’re really doing here. None of this is helped by the fact that the visuals are flat and ugly, resembling a daytime soap opera more than a feature film (it probably shouldn’t surprise that director Habac has a fair bit of television work under his belt). But if that’s your lane, why not go full Lifetime Network with your premise, instead of offering up something as mean-spirited and unsatisfying as Here and There? To all the Lens out there, you be you; you are deserving of love and allowed to be occasionally messy, regardless of what these filmmakers would lead you to believe.
Published as part of NYAFF 2021 — Dispatch 5.