Dreams of Freedom, Illusions of Autonomy: A Critique of ‘Love You to the Stars and Back’

Photo grabbed from Star Cinema website


Some films and TV shows are highly conducive to a philosophical reading. The Black Mirror, for instance. But it’s not something you’d expect from Filipino romantic comedies, which are more (in)famous — and at times derided — for their kilig factor, feel-good, light-hearted entertainment, and their false ideas about love and romance.

I suppose one should never generalize about anything, and that there will always be an exception to any rule. But at any rate, I’ve been amazed at how these supposedly shallow films embed political and even philosophical issues, even if the movies don’t consciously couch them in such terms. In Love You to the Stars and Back, a film that stars Julia Barreto and Joshua Garcia, politics and philosophy pertains to questions of freedom, independence, and autonomy, which are portrayed as illusion and nonsense.

Directed by Antoinette Jadaone (English Only, Please and That Thing Called Tadhana), the film begins with Mika’s (Julia Barreto) road trip. She misses his mother, who had died of cancer, and does not approve of her father’s (Ariel Rivera) new relationship (Maricar Poon). Upon learning that she will be having a half-brother (or sister, the movie never mentions it), Mika bolts out of the house, jumps into her car, and drives to Mt. Milagros, where she plans to be abducted by aliens. Her mom had explained to Mika that her death was the equivalent of, or could simply be seen as, alien abduction.

This is the second time a road trip has appeared in a Direk Toinette (close kami?) film. One was in That Thing Called Tadhana, but while Mace’s (Angelica Panganiban) journey to Baguio represented in this film a wish to cope with heartbreak, the road trip in Love You to the Stars and Back entails a trip to nonsense. Aliens do not really exist, do they? And the chant to summon the aliens, “Ajira Grevinda Mama Ajaarum” does not mean anything, as Mika herself admits when Caloy asks her, whom she meets on the trip. Plus, the chant is shouted on top of Mount Milagros towards a beautiful but empty landscape.

Mika has reached the summit of her sought-for liberation (literally so), but as she (with Caloy) stands and shouts on top of the mountain, we see (and later she does too) that her quest for freedom is a desire and encounter with emptiness.  One is reminded of Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 (ca) painting, Wanderer above the Mist, which portrays a man standing over a sea of clouds. The painting represented the nothingness inherent in Romantic thought and the all-powerful sovereignty of the subject in German idealist philosophy. In the film, this power and meaninglessness of the subject is captured in Mika’s quote, “Minsan, kailangan mo lang maniwala” (Sometimes, you just have to believe). As if believing something — aliens exist and will abduct us — would automatically make it true.

The same desire for liberation and freedom underpins Caloy’s journey. Stricken with leukemia, he has been given a few months  to live and wishes to die because he does not want to be a burden to his family. His operation costs PhP 4.5 million with only 50 to 60 percent chance of success. Like Mika, Caloy chants, “Ajira Grevinda Mama Ajaarum” to nothingness.

Naturally, no alien comes for them, and they both rationalize this by saying something along the lines of, “Maybe they’ll come tomorrow.” But this initiates the process of returning to reality, wherein they realize that their dreams of freedom and liberation will not be forthcoming, that the freedom and independence they seek is as illusory and nonsensical as, “Ajira Grevinda Mama Ajaarum.” Similarly, after their trip, Caloy has to be taken to the hospital because of complications arising from his cancer.  His illness — which spurred him to decide to die — ruins his plans for a noble demise and self-sacrifice. Hence the return from the sublime heights for freedom to limitations and imperfections of the quotidian. Hence the title of the film: they reach for the (metaphorical) stars only to come back.

The road trip motif symbolizes and suits this quest for freedom quite nicely, where you are liberated from your everyday surroundings, where you can go where you want and do simply as you wish. We see this in Mika’s conversations with her father, “Don’t mind me; I am OK.” Her road trip is an expression of her autonomy and independence from her father and (soon-to-be) stepmother. Caloy has the same desire; in the film, he laments why people decide for him, why he is not allowed to choose for himself, and that his life is to be decided by others, in this case his family and eventual girlfriend. This also explains why he hated the fact that his mother had to ask for money from a relative who disrespected her: he no longer wants to be dependent.

But if in one sense the liberation, freedom, and independence that Mika and Caloy seek — as symbolized by their wish to be abducted by aliens — are illusory, then they are in another. For one of the lessons in Love You to the Stars and Back is that one can never be completely autonomous. One can never simply cut ties with one’s relations, and that one can never be fully independent and autonomous. Indeed, it is through his relationships that Caloy survives and lives, despite his contrary wishes. Both characters realize this in the end. Mika makes up with his family and accepts the stepmother that she used to hate, and Caloy realizes that he has a lot else to live for, not least his girlfriend, Mika.

Why does the film insist on this quite obvious lesson? Who would deny the reality of our need for dependence? On the one hand, the film chides and corrects the excesses of its two protagonists, who wish to be free, autonomous, and independent at the expense of their family and loved ones. This I suppose is the typical wish of any young person (read: millennials?) like Mika and Caloy, characters who represent the (Filipino) youth today. Love You to the Stars and Back struck a chord, earning over  PhP 100 million (as of September 2017).

On the other hand, I read the film as a symptom of a (growing) tension and reconciliation between the ideology of and desire for autonomy, and the collectivist, family-oriented nature of Philippine society. Asian nations, including the Philippines, have long been perceived (stereotyped?) as collectivist, but here we have a film whose protagonists wish to leave their families, and assert their autonomy.

Of course, it’s not as if Love You to the Stars and Back censures autonomy. The film ends with both Caloy and Mika reunited on Mount Milagros. It does not shun the (symbol and location for) autonomy, liberation, and independence, but shows that desiring these things must be coupled with an awareness of one’s (inter)dependence. And nothing exhibits that better than love.

The foregoing tension has always been a case in youth-oriented and -targeted films, so perhaps questions of autonomy, independence, and liberation are fleshed out therein. But I also wonder, in the case of the Philippines, whether and to what extent can we attribute films such as Love You to the Stars and Back and few others including Seven Sundays (these few others collectively merit a separate blog entry) to changes in Philippine society and its shifting demographics. Especially of note are the growth of the Filipino middle class through remittances and BPOs, the increasing neoliberalization of the Philippine economy, full exposure to Western values thanks to the internet, and massive consumer spending as evidenced through the creations of more malls.

Does this fresh assertion of autonomy represent the values of the new, confident Filipino middle class, an ideology that middle classes elsewhere — not least those in Britain that based its wealth on merchant trade and sought to curtail royal power, and those who launched the Enlightenment in Europe, particularly in France? Or is the expression of autonomy simply an indication liberal ideas have always had a place in Philippine social life, despite the dominance of semi-feudal politics, and patron-client relations?  In which case, a film like Love You to the Stars and Back points to a constant tension, reconciliation, and negotiation between two facets of Philippine society: its liberal democratic, and individualist tradition and its (supposedly?) collectivist, communal, and perhaps semifeudal sociopolitical legacies.

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