A few walks away from Emerald Avenue, Ortigas, Pasig City, a little opposite Strata 2000, along Onyx Road, at the ground floor of the Parc Royale, still stands a branch of Mini-stop. For me, it looked like the actual place Prime Cruz shot the scenes where his lead characters mostly met. Gem and Barry (Glaiza de Castro and Dominic Rocco) were call center agents who visited the convenience store at night because they couldn’t sleep. They downed their cups of noodles and bottled drinks there. Stared through the store’s transparent glass wall. Imagined things and creatures. They came up with crazy ideas which were somehow related to some deep emotional mess they’re in.
This pair of co-workers did not ‘actively’ do something to escape their individual dillemas. I mean, they were both capable of choosing a more stable and ‘regular’ work. Their current job felt like a harmless diversion while they didn’t have definite plans yet. The work’s monotony drowned their deep-seated hurts.
They and many among us hadn’t thought this type of employment as a form of slavery though. It’s a cultural re-infiltration, strengthening our decades-old awe with anything America. To specify: Many of these employees had subscribed to imported TV series and talked animatedly of Hollywood movie blockbusters as if they were the only ones worth watching. They consumed those plots and stories like those were the ones that speak truthfully to us, mindless that our habits and tastes continue to be dictated upon by our ex-colonizers. Whatever distinct little things we had left inside us are being blurred and eradicated like how international corporations had been doing for years in subtly subjugating distinct cultures, in having some degree of stronghold on our economic interests. A.k.a globalisation. In recent years it’s a sad fact too that this call center culture somehow had become influential in aiding this impression that our local TV shows and local films are thrashy, substandard, or unworthy of money and patronage.
Sleepless didn’t really tackle or go deeply into these themes. It’s about a friendship or, call it, a burgeoning romance. But the more I remembered this scene in the movie, of Gem with her ‘boyfriend’ Vince (TJ Trinidad) dining in a somewhat plush restaurant, also recalling them having a conversation on art inside an art gallery, which exposed the sharp difference in their opinions on the subject, then, remembering Barry’s dream of looking for his son in Canada, the more I thought of words like ‘displacement’ and ‘class difference’ no matter how convinced I was that those associations were quite a stretch.
To divert my attention, I asked myself these about the characters: What was making Gem more insomiac? Her feelings of being unloved despite her having a charming personality and a facial structure and big eyes as beautiful as an Egyptian princess’? She could attract more deserving men a lot better than Vince, who would give her the importance she deserved. Does Barry need to worry of not being able to take care of his son? I think that’s a virtue rarely depicted in cinema: a young man who searches for his child when the mother doesn’t even require him to send them financial support. There must be something really special between Barry and his ex-girlfriend for him to be too emotionally attached to his boy as if he were his life. Usually a young man would feel relieved that the woman he’s sired with didn’t require him of such a daunting responsibility. But Barry was unlike them. He was responsible, sensitive, and took each relationship and life-event preciously.
We would learn more what’s underneath Barry and Gem’s young faces–and they’re good at hiding what to others could be so depressing. Glaiza and Dominic didn’t exaggerate or overact their characters’ problems that it was so easy for them and for us to slide and glide to the emotional currents of the movie. I think some philosopher said that life is a continuum of pleasure and pain. That’s how the movie felt, to describe it vulgarly: well lubricated. There were no sharp spikes. Things felt seemingly light.
Together, the couple were fun to look at and looked easy to go along with, despite the fact that their speaking decent, respectable English slightly gave me second thoughts if I would pursue making friends with them. They went to some secret meeting place at the office during coffebreaks, at the rooftop, which might make some folks tag them as weirdos, and which made me gravitate toward them and made me quickly forget my initial reservations. They seemed to love to bask at the vast space at roof decks, somehow owning that space to themselves. And when they’re at the ground level indoors, the colors of the things in a convenience store and toyland and the lights around them served as visually pleasing backdrops. They danced to techno-pop tunes. They created their playful and imaginary universes.
Prime Cruz had built a structurally beautiful film, proving himself a good director. Every scene, each frame or funny conversation, was a transition, a ‘plant’, a symbol, or a foreground. We recognized the function of moments and sequences with ease, those visual clues that suggested a problematic relationship or those that insisted something acutely, breathtakingly close to romantic love was unfolding. In one scene, the placement of Gem in the middle of the many little frames of eye paintings and photographs seemed to isolate her, made her feel conscious that she’s being stared at because she knew she didn’t belong, intensified her incorrect self-assessment that she lacked sophistication. The mechanical way Vince and Gem undressed before having sex spoke obviously of the type of love theirs had evolved into. Staring at Gem and Barry sleeping face to face in bed put to a cliffhanger all the sweet possibilities that scene cultivated. These were samples of pregnant images in the film, and there’s an artfulness in making them obvious but tempering them to look not too loud. No frame or sequence stuck out like nodes. The images and events flowed smoothly. The repetitiveness of images and symbols gave the movie a charm for its feeling composed, calculated or structured, yet the nuanced performances and the complete absence of hysteria made it all feel real.
It wouldn’t end the same way mainstream movies wrap up, but these easy but fertile associations made the story to simmer in our minds into its final images. The level of judiciousness the first-time director Prime Cruz applied in balancing the indie vibe and the mainstream elements was first-rate and impressive. He had provided me my first deeply satisfying movie-theater experience this year.
I worked in a call center in Ortigas. I had an officemate who drew the skyline using M.S. Paint to avoid falling asleep. When the sun began to shine, I marveled at the piece. It was not a realistic drawing, but an accurate representation of a panoramic view of what we saw through the curtain glass walls of the office. I saw on the illustration the slabs and electric poles of old edifices which are now hid or replaced by the Marco Polo Hotel. I could not be mistaken that there was also a part of the facade of the Meralco Building somewhere at the corner of the drawing plane. There they were, vertical lines, punched square windows, concrete columns, glass enclosements, and steel frames being the stuff our urban forests are comprised of. It’s been years and the coldness and barrenness the memory of the drawing represented still punctured. After periods of pretending to be numb, after seeing the movie, I realized that the heart becomes crazier in measuring or approximating (and could not escape) the pains from what could be those years together that were lost–the seemingly on-and-off symptoms of an incurable ‘disease’ caused by some cruel but ‘necessary’ distance.
Sleepless had a three-week run at select SM Cinemas last May 2017, as part of the CineLokal fest, a partnership of SM Malls and the Film Development Council of The Philippines.