The early 90's was for Philippine cinema a period for transition from the hard-hitting dramas and actioners to the sugary and light romances that are still popular up to today.
Carlos Siguion-Reyna's Hihintayin Kita sa Langit (I Will Wait For You in Heaven, 1991), the quintessential Filipino film adaptation of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights starring Richard Gomez and Dawn Zulueta as lovers doomed by both man and fate's cruelty, represented what could probably be the last hurrah for mature romantic tearjerkers, paving the way for stories of teenagers and their first romances.
Cathy Garcia-Molina's adaptation of Bianca Bernardino's She's Dating the Gangster, the Nicholas Spark-esque novelette about another lovesick girl falling for the coolest guy in the campus, could have gone the way all the other commercially successful teen rom-coms went before it. Bernardino's story, which curiously ends in tragedy, has all the makings of a swoony hit, especially with all its outrageously blatant manifestations of juvenile love.
In the novelette, Athena, a normal girl in campus, is forced by Kenji, the campus' top mischief-maker, to pretend to be his girlfriend to make his ex, who is also named Athena, jealous enough to want to come back to him. As with all love stories of this type, the pretences dissipate, giving way for what seems to be true love, which would be abruptly stopped by some mean twist of fortune, which in this very unoriginal case, is a fatal disease.
Garcia-Molina, thankfully, has more adventurism than most of her peers who would have gone the route of simply filming the novel as is, as what Andoy Ranay did in his adaptation of Diary ng Panget (The Ugly's Diary, 2014). Garcia-Molina's adaptation, which innovates to cover the obvious derivativeness of Bernardino's text, is simply put, offers a stark improvement over the original material.
A variation of Bernardino's love story between Athena (Kathryn Bernardo) and Kenji (Daniel Padilla), set in the 90's instead of the novelette's original 2004 timeline, is sandwiched within the beginnings of the blossoming romance between Athena's niece and Kenji's son, who are also played by Bernardo and Padilla. The niece and the son have been serendipitously forced into a mission to reunite middle-aged Athena and Kenji (played by Hihintayin Kita sa Langit's Zulueta and Gomez respectively) who have been separated by mysterious circumstances.
Predictably, Athena and Kenji's love story has more meat. The niece and the son's romance feels more like an afterthought, a way to further capitalize the masses' interest on Bernardo and Padilla's popular love team. Nevertheless, Garcia-Molina drapes Athena and Kenji's narrative with a crazed mix of kitsch and nostalgia for what the 90's represented in Philippine pop culture. It is the era of paged messages, tie-dyed tees, gaudy bandanas, garish plaids, and denim vests, all of which are remnants of a generation fed with movies and television shows starring Jolina Magdangal and Marvin Agustin. She's Dating the Gangster is rightfully colorful, evoking every bit of the 90's trademark tack.
The tragedy invented by Bernardino has been creatively subdued. Star Cinema undoubtedly protested the grim end of Athena and Kenji, as told by the book. It has to be a happy ending, for the sake of profitable escapism. Thus, instead of death as the payment for love, Garcia-Molina chose the reality of not being with the one you love, of waiting, of eventually settling. It is this ending that separates Bernardino's juvenilia and Garcia-Molina's masked maturity, in the midst of studio compromises. There are simply more heartaches more immense than the ones dealt by mortality.
The film adaptation of She's Dating the Gangster is a series of risks taken that paid off quite well. It could have been a straight adaptation and it would still have pre-teens bawling because of the tragic ending. It could have been set in the present with its characters mouthing pop culture references that are hip and relatable to the target audience. It could have been just about Bernardo and Padilla, and not Zulueta and Gomez, whose onscreen love affairs are relics. It could have been just another romantic comedy, the ones that mainstream studios have been churning out for corporate survival ever since the decline of the demand for more serious fare.
It's good that it's not. She's Dating the Gangster is not art. It is still a film designed and crafted for escape, the ones Garcia-Molina, with her knack for fake hairpieces and dreamy fantasies, is so good at making. It is however entertainment that is self-aware. It knows what it is, what it is not, and where it came from. When it concluded with a redo of one of the most iconic and memorable images from a Filipino romance, the one from Hihintayin Kita sa Langit where Gomez carries a dying Zulueta in their last try at love, everything fell into place, from the decision to cast two generations of popular love teams to its attachment to the 90's. She's Dating the Gangster knows exactly where it belongs in the long timeline of Filipino cinematic romances.
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