Warning: This review contains spoilers from Third World Romance.
It no longer comes as a surprise that the initial reactions to Dwein Baltazar’s Third World Romance would point out the work’s parallel connections to Jade Castro’s 2007 Cinemalaya entry Endo. Both films, after all, are cut from the same cloth. Both works, in a nutshell, center on romance shaped by unjust social conditions. Such stories are basically a workplace romance, only the workers are blue-collar, always meant to hop between jobs and flit from one paycheck to another, which drastically changes everything.
The viewers get thrust into this frantic milieu right from the get-go. The opening sequence, mounted gloriously through Kara Moreno’s camerawork and Marya Ignacio’s editing, sees Britney (Charlie Dizon) and Alvin (Carlo Aquino) meeting amid a crowd lining up for pandemic relief, which later rolls into a chaotic chase of the van transporting the goods, the bureaucratic structures or the rain be damned. It’s a searing opener that demonstrates how harsh the system is to the point that people, especially those living on the fringes, are forced to stomach anything to keep themselves afloat and to continue putting food on the table. “‘Pag mahirap ka, kailangan matapang ka,” as Britney aptly puts it.
This incident not only sets the tone for the rest of the film, but also the frame of mind to which Third World Romance affixes its commentary: how life in the Global South, in the Philippines to be exact, operates on cruel contracts and conditions; how even the path to happiness and love doesn’t come for free. Baltazar and co-writer Jeko Aguado openly talk about this throughout the film, incorporating humor that often takes a stab at government leaders and their incompetence and the overall quality of life (or the lack thereof) when one isn’t showered with privilege.
Such material reality also becomes the source of Britney and Alvin’s joys and pains. Here, to love also means to struggle. The question, however, is how long can they carry each other’s baggage until it all feels too heavy to bear. As Britney gets hired in the grocery store where Alvin works, their relationship begins to develop, with Baltazar always finding the perfect moment to harness the chemistry of the two leads, even without the grand gestures. This is best captured when the two, in their usual spot, attempt to mimic how some customers at a Korean restaurant eat.
The collaboration really pays off. Aquino delivers an effortless and convincing work, brimming with charm and playfulness that is simply hard to dismiss. Whatever makes the film so effective, though, is due largely to the commanding presence of Dizon, whose turn in Antoinette Jadaone’s Fan Girl three years ago showcased her range and arsenal. Here, she proves yet again why she’s a master of her craft, armed with such incredible authenticity and openness that she extends to Britney, which then affords the character this richer inner life. Dizon, apart from this, is always so generous with her emotions that she’s able to provide levity to her character even in the most heartbreaking moments, cue that phone call scene. Dizon’s Britney is chaotic, assertive, and caring to a fault, which is to say, she’s also deeply human.
And what feels more sincere about all the kilig the film whips up is that Baltazar knows better than to romanticize the economic realities that, in many ways, dictate how the central romance plays out. The film stakes this layer of thought through its decision to shoot a huge chunk of the work in long takes and in locations that offer not only a peak but also a clearer, more thoughtful picture of the day-to-day lives of the working class, where everything is not all about hardship, where queer families like that of Alvin’s are not frowned upon. Most rewarding of which is the supermarket sequence that displays, with real-time precision, how frustrating it is for these exploited workers to always wear a smile and never run out of a pleasing personality to satisfy every customer, even when their worlds begin to crumble.
Some reviews mention that Third World Romance is much more sober, if not more lenient, than Endo, which is a fitting observation. And the third act can really feel a little too contrived, with some conflicts resolved a little too conveniently, yet one cannot help but give into the cheesiness and magic it generates, even just for a brief moment. The film earns this feeling, anyway.
But of course, not all stories end this way. Baltazar can surely work with a spectrum of choices, and here, she insists on imagining something better. Third World Romance extends a level of tenderness and, ultimately, hope to the likes of Britney and Alvin, who are trained to see their lives only in its terminus, one that is heavily informed by contracts and fleeting negotiations. Because, escapist as it may seem, it is this hope that tells these overworked and underpaid bodies that, in a world that always runs on a time limit, something is going to last.
Third World Romance opens in Philippine cinemas on Aug. 16. Watch the trailer below.