In the last couple of years, Dan Villegas quickly rose up the ranks of directors in the Philippines, largely through helming the much maligned mainstream romantic comedy. But there is a strange quirk to his application of the familiar romcom formula. There are elements that are more or less common in all of his films, the director prone to playing with the power dynamics of gender.
This is a gross generalization, but the local romcom formula more often than not depicts men of stature being won over by women of humble substance. It’s Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth told over and over again in various different contexts. The intern Laida perseveres through Miggy’s familial issues in A Very Special Love. The unrefined Sandy wins over the debonair rich kid Alex in Bakit Hindi Ka Crush ng Crush Mo? And so on. It is a pattern that is so often played out that one might not even notice it anymore.
But there is another dynamic at play in the films of Mr. Villegas, which often seem to build their conflict around the emasculation of its male character. His films seem to be concerned with the idea of men feeling insecure around the success of their mate, interpersonal friction often arising from the male character’s inability to deal with the lower position in the relationship.
It’s an interesting perspective that has managed to manifest in different ways in his movies. In English Only, Please, Derek Ramsay plays a man trying to learn Tagalog in order to properly tell off the girl that broke his heart. His whole arc is built on him trying to gain back some power in the relationship, only to realize later on that it doesn’t really matter. Walang Forever plays up a different kind of machismo, with Jericho Rosales playing the kind of man that feels he needs to protect the woman he loves by lying to her, convinced that he is being strong by not sharing something that is causing him pain. In The Breakup Playlist, Piolo Pascual plays a washed up rock star that finds new successing in nurturing the talent of Sarah Geronimo, only to later resent how he seems to be playing second fiddle to her. And in How to be Yours, Gerald Anderson supports the budding talents of chef Bea Alonzo, only to later find it difficult to deal with her absence as she continues to chase success.
This dynamic isn’t completely unique to Villagas. Cathy Garcia-Molina’s A Second Chance played with these ideas as well. But it seems to be a constant presence in the stories told by Villegas, and his grasp of the emotions involved make his particular brand of romantic film feel more grounded. The character flaw that the male characters eventually have to overcome is the fragility of their own egos, the requisite romantic resolution arriving when the men swallow their pride, grow up, and understand that the expected gender roles don’t really matter in the long run.
This dynamic even plays out in his only non-romantic comedy film, the recent horror movie Ilawod. In it, Ian Veneracion struggles all movie long that his wife is making much more money than he is. Part of his thrust as a character seems to be about trying to advance his position at work, even at a time when it’s become clear that he’s becoming a bit absent in the lives of his children, both of whom are encountering all manner of supernatural oddness.
What Mr. Villegas seems to be adding to the discourse of the most dominant genres in local filmmaking is a distinct male perspective, with particular interest in the role of the modern man in an age where gender roles are more fluid than ever. His perspective seems to be an embrace of this paradigm, his characters finding more reward in being open to something entirely different from what they had expected. It is not that the men in his movies do not deserve or achieve personal satisfaction– but that the stories he tells acknowledge that there might be something more to being a man than feeling like a man.