In the first minutes of Changing Partners, Agot Isidro’s Alex (don’t be confused, there’ll be two Alex’s here — that’s kind of the concept of the whole film) expresses her excitement over watching the new season of her favorite prime-time musical soap opera.
Her much younger boyfriend Cris (Sandino Martin, one of the Cris’s, that is) finds the notion of characters breaking into song quite absurd. Isidro’s Alex explains that when characters burst into song, it is so emotions can be more untethered and thus more felt — the tempered voice inside one's self breaking free. Then a few minutes later, both this Alex and Cris start belting high notes on the magic and peculiarity of their love.
With this first scene, there’s a display of confidence, of power, behind the seemingly tongue-in-cheek self-awareness. Here are director Dan Villegas and writers Lilit Reyes and Vincent de Jesus using this first set of Alex and Cris as their oracles; they are declaring: 'We know very well the cards we have in hand, we know their power over emotions, expect us to use them to their full extent.'
Adapted from last year's PETA stage musical, Changing Partners tackles the downward spiraling relationship of 45-year-old Alex (Jojit Lorenzo and Agot Isidro) and 29-year-old Cris (Sandino Martin and Anna Luna). The film opens six years into their relationship, a relationship that started as a whirlwind romance and led to them moving in together and is now a different whirlwind altogether, as they can barely hold on to it as it spins out of control.
The film, though, is as much about its structure as its story. The musical stands out as it explores universalities as well as, fully utilizing its form, relationship-specific nuances by having two actors, one male and one female, occupy each of the two roles. These lead to four permutations that —though the May-December couple technically remains the same — switch up from time to time from being a heterosexual couple in a scene to a gay one in the other.
The premise itself of a failing relationship has been tackled countless of times in pop culture, so have unconventional romances that deal with age. But this again is the ground already expected from a genre as saturated as romance. The challenge here is how to fulfill what audiences anticipate from this kind of film but at the same time lead these expectations towards new and unfamiliar territory. Luckily, Changing Partners achieves this with aplomb through the beautiful craftsmanship behind it.
Changing Partners uses the commonality of its premise not as a hindrance but as a strength, extending it as a comment on the sprawling universality of love. Whether straight, gay, lesbian, old, or young, some parts of love are simply perennial. Irrationality, paranoia, bursts of contempt you immediately regret after, jealousy, growing up and apart, not knowing where to place yourself in certain situations; these characters go through the whole gamut that (in most cases) so have we, the viewers, regardless of gender identity and sexual preference.
As I mentioned in passing earlier, what I also find amusing in Changing Partners is how, even amidst the beauty and heartache in its generality, it finds a way to imbue the four variations of the film’s relationships with character nuances and variant-specific dialogue that add color and address issues particular to the respective pairing. The grouping of Jojit Lorenzo’s Alex and Anna Luna’s Cris adds the layer of resentment coming from Alex as to why Cris won’t marry him yet even as she’s pushing 30 (a peculiarity he deems for a woman). The other twosomes likewise tackle themes such as emasculation, “penis envy” (a loose definition, Freudian psychology isn’t exactly my forte), etc.
These nuances are not only seen in its themes, but also in the film’s stellar performances. Most scenes in Changing Partners are framed to give us close-ups of Isidro, Lorenzo, Luna, and Martin. This presentation can be considered an advantage in the transition from stage to screen as seeing the performers’ faces — to how they can enact subtle changes depending on the character variants they're playing — highlight their strengths even more. All get their shining moments in front of the camera. Jojit Lorenzo exhibits the broadest range as he, in a way, can create twins who share the same face but carry themselves in entirely different ways, making them distinguishable at a glance.
The ability of film, as a medium, to play around with editing and camera work elevate the film as its use of match cuts and rapid switches can work with expectations, prolonging silence and driving heart-pounding rhythms into scenes. Confrontations are the most marvelous to watch out for as the film can tense up these sequences, using the finely composed music as a connective foundation in which the quick changing leads can prop up both their overlapping voices and their switches between beats and cuts. This is not to say that the music is merely there to hold the film together. Changing Partners' melodies are strong enough to stand on their own, wrenching hearts through their monologues via torch song.
If there’s an issue that I could raise against Changing Partners, it’s that the film’s depiction of “millennialism” can be quite on-the-nose. Having Cris obsess over Anime, EverWing, and other "millennial quirks" can be a bit more subtle, more organic.
This is just me nitpicking though as this is a film to be taken by the sum of its parts (finely-crafted parts, if I may add). As I mentioned, the story itself is something we’ve seen time and time again in pop culture. But with its scene-stealing performances, heartfelt music, and unique treatment, the film leads assumptions into fresh territory, satisfyingly delivering the catharsis its premise promises.