Genre’s Not Dead
My Kontrabida Girl
Director: Jade Castro
Cast: Rhian Ramos, Aljur Abrenica, Bea Binene, Jake Vargas, Bella Flores, Enzo Pineda, Chariz Solomon, Kevin Santos, Sef Cadayona, Ken Chan, Bela Padilla, Gwen Zamora
Do not be fooled by its deceptively accessible surface, enhanced by the parade of delicious biceps thanks to Aljur Abrenica, Enzo Pineda et. al. You may think you’re just watching another run-of-the-mill boy-meets-girl story (well, to some extent that’s what it is) but who would’ve thought that GMA Films would come up with a romantic comedy that’s not plain fluff?
Negation is at the heart of My Kontrabida Girl, as evidenced by its title. However, the film demonstrates not the mechanical kind of negation where things are clearly delineated as black or white. It is a dynamic negation which is more concerned with conflict, complexity and sublation. “The interdependence of the contradictory aspects present in all things and the struggle between these aspects determine the life of all things and push their development forward,” says Mao Tse Tung. “There is nothing that does not contain contradiction; without contradiction nothing would exist.”
In the film, Bella Flores regally and succinctly sums up this concept in layman’s terms: “kung walang kontrabida, walang bida.”
Heigl meets Hegel
My Kontrabida Girl’s storytelling follows a clearly dialectical structure, and there lies its brilliance. The film plays with opposites which seem sharply contrasting at first: job versus personal life, love versus hate, small town versus big city, offscreen versus onscreen, friend versus enemy, truth versus lie, etc. My Kontrabida Girl then proceeds to marry these concepts, thereby demonstrating their inherent affinity. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis—the components of Hegelian dialectics. My Kontrabida Girl is rife with them, all interconnected, each punctuated by a huge (and comedic) confrontation scene.
The film’s premise is hinged on deploying the quintessential Katherine Heigl-esque character Isabel (Rhian Ramos) as one huge antithesis, the literal “kontrabida girl” to her hometown’s status quo. She sets out to destroy the life of her former sweetheart Chris (Aljur Abrenica), but in order to destroy Chris, she must destroy, in another dynamic contradiction, everything not-Chris: his friends and family. To sabotage Chris, she sabotages the whole.
This carefully-wrought totality demonstrates the intelligence that went into making My Kontrabida Girl’s story. From a horizontal view, the characters and events are tightly interdependent. But their development is also vertically compound, each resolution building upon the previous one and deepening the complexity of both individual characters and their combined totality. In all of the film’s major relationships—Isabel-Chris, Isabel-career, Chris-Joyce, the two sides of Chris’s family—the conflicts are resolved but not erased, both hate and love are amalgamated. Nothing is lost or destroyed, but raised up and preserved as in a spiral.*
This type of story development is exceedingly rare in mainstream films normally peopled with cardboard characters and ruled by deus ex machina. In My Kontrabida Girl, the characters’ motivations are clear, their actions organic, and the story, as a result, strangely believable.
Kontrabida versus amnesia
The common weakness of mainstream genre films is their dependence on trite and unscientific storytelling. Take, for example, a similarly titled Jade Castro story from the rival network, the highly successful (yet less sophisticated) My Amnesia Girl directed by Cathy Garcia Molina. In this case, the film’s story progresses not through an organic logic, but through a more common mainstream template: the mechanical reversal of situations.
In a nutshell, the main conflicts of My Amnesia Girl are:
Thesis 1: Irene loves Apollo, and thinks they are meant to be.
Antithesis 1: On their wedding day, however, Apollo leaves her, therefore crushing thesis 1.
Thesis 2: Irene hates Apollo, and thinks they are not meant to be.
Antithesis 2: Apollo realizes his mistake and perseveres to woo Irene back, therefore crushing thesis 2.
Thesis 3: Irene loves Apollo, and thinks they are meant to be again. The end.
Tracing the story arc, it is a singular line composed of a simple reversal of propositions—a double negation. In many mainstream films like My Amnesia Girl, the double negation is a standard formula where the initial thesis is debunked, only to be reinstated in the end.
More often than not, mainstream films that follow this template also treat love as a relatively isolated dynamic that exists independently of other life factors. It is common to see supporting characters that exist only to affirm or embellish the linear love story—which, like My Amnesia Girl, is reducible to a simplistic reversal. This approach produces films that, while enjoyable, are completely unrealistic.
Verisimilitude versus defamiliarization
Many mainstream movies aspire for a complete illusion of “reality,” a seamless verisimilitude that allows the audience to suspend disbelief completely. Take recent Star Cinema productions, for example, like Won’t Last a Day Without You and Unoffically Yours. These movies present a rich milieu of “everyday life:” real occupations like the radio DJ and the Manila Bulletin food writer, realistic families with their own quirks, modest homes and jeepney rides, the familiar urban sprawl, the lure of diaspora, the lush details of our real lives reproduced on screen.
The accuracy of the milieu is in stark contrast to the bankruptcy of the stories, all reiterations of the same template of double negation/mechanical reversal. The obvious danger is that because the audience will believe the milieu, they will also believe the flawed life philosophy it contains. Movies, after all, influence how we live our lives, affecting our judgments, views and desires. Romantic comedies, in particular, teach us how to love. The increasing proliferation of grandiose proposal viral videos and cinematic wedding videography is indicative of a generation raised on Hollywood romantic comedies, with its cutesy courtships and grand gestures. Certainly, there is a disconnect when we try to apply what we saw on the screen and integrate it into real life. This kind of simplistic filmmaking peddles a backward kind of philosophy which either alienates audiences or inundates them with the false life expectations.
In a mainstream assembly line that is preoccupied with churning out fantasy after improbable fantasy, the refreshingly realistic My Kontrabida Girl thus stands out. Not only is its storytelling informed by dialectics, but its self-conscious directorial treatment creates a kind of fourth-wall effect. It plays with Hollywood romantic comedy conventions, but is firmly rooted in Filipino culture and values. My Kontrabida Girl is fully aware of its context as a genre film, as a mainstream film, as a Filipino film. It shirks the veneer of verisimilitude that so many mainstream films take great pains to achieve, in favor of a hyperrealist Brechtian distancing effect.
My Kontrabida Girl’s approach is reflexive, taking typical genre elements which the audience already expects (ie confrontations in the rain, teary apologies, grand gestures of love in the end) and exaggerates them short of being unsettlingly absurd. Its scenes pay homage to cinema, gathering legendary kontrabidas like Cherie Gil, Maritoni Fernandez and Gladys Reyes into a single montage. Character names are a nod to movies; Aljur’s character Chris Bernal, for example, is a play on his former ka-love team Kris Bernal, while his sister Joyce is named after director Bb. Joyce Bernal. Altogether, these devices announce to the viewer that the spectacle they are watching is not reality, it is just a film, it is a genre film.
My Kontrabida Girl is a production that is a fantasy at the surface, but philosophically grounded at the core, with an insight on how narratives progress both on and offscreen. Quite a difficult balance to pull off and deploy as light entertainment. But it works.
“Life is therefore also a contradiction which is present in things and processes themselves, and which constantly originates and resolves itself,” says Frederick Engels, explaining dialectics. “Life consists precisely and primarily in this—that a being is at each moment itself and yet something else. ” My Kontrabida Girl’s story demonstrates how this concept manifests concretely in real life situations. And My Kontrabida Girl itself, as a film, reaffirms Engels—it’s a screwball romantic comedy, yet it’s also a lesson in dialectics.
My Kontrabida Girl is a shining example of the possibility of a mainstream cinema that is sophisticated but not inaccessible, entertaining without being stupid. It offers audiences a realistic understanding of how relationships progress, a working philosophy of the dynamics of change. It is the product of intelligent writing and directing, firmly grounded in local culture.
It only goes to show that we still have discerning filmmakers who care enough for the audience to create perceptive cinema even in the mainstream. My Kontrabida Girl provides a much-needed glimmer of hope for genre cinema in particular, and to Philippine mainstream cinema as a whole. Ang swerte mo, Rhian. #
*from Hegel for Beginners by Krause and Spencer.
Bella Flores offers tips on how to be a kontrabida.
No one makes sampal Rhian Ramos.
Behind the scenes featurette.
Full trailer for My Kontrabida Girl.
Entry filed under: Edgar Allan Paule, Filipino films, Full length films. Tags: Aljur Abrenica, Bea Binene, Bela Padilla, Bella Flores, Chariz Solomon, Cherie Gil, contradictions, dialectics, Enzo Pineda, genre, genre films, georg hegel, Gladys Reyes, gma films, Gwen Zamora, hegel, hegelian dialectics, jade castro, Jake Vargas, Ken Chan, Kevin Santos, kontrabida, Maritoni Fernandez, mechanical reversal, my amnesia girl, my kontrabida girl, odette khan, Rhian Ramos, Sef Cadayona, star cinema.