The call center industry, well-known for employing its workers in graveyard shifts, and which is ironically called one of the nation’s sunrise industries, lends Philippine cities a unique claim to the title of the city that never sleeps. While contenders for the nickname in other continents are havens of endless leisure and nightlife and luxury, Manila (or Cebu or Bacolod) are inhabited by night dwellers who forgo sleep not out of choice, but out of necessity.
Many of them, that is, but not all. Sleepless, an entry to the 2015 QCinema (Quezon City) Film Festival, is ambivalent about the call center industry. It is tempting for a film with such a premise to be an echo chamber of critical sociopolitical sentiments: that this outsourcing industry disadvantages our nation in a neo-imperialist world order, that it enslaves its workers under alienating working conditions, et cetera, et cetera. But for Sleepless, the graveyard shift, the darkness of ungodly hours, is just a backdrop to its story, the circumstances that its characters happen to inhabit.
Note: this essay is an in-depth commentary on the film, and includes spoilers by necessity. It is meant for those who have seen the film.
Gem (Glaiza de Castro), the story’s daydreaming insomniac heroine, reflects this outlook. Friends and family are pressuring her to leave the call center and find a more prestigious job, but she simply says, “Masaya pa naman ako.” (“I’m still happy with my job.”) With her credentials and the connections of her friends, it is clear that she could easily find a more regular job; but she is determined to stay, and we are invited to find out what motivates her so.
In contrast, Barry (Dominic Roco), starts his job in the call center with hesitation, like the stereotypical agent who looks at his job as lucrative but going nowhere. Gem, quite the good performer in the company, is assigned to be his training buddy. They discover they are apartment neighbors, and they soon become partners in crime.
Here, Sleepless, while subdued in tone overall, shows a few attempts at levity. The two find solace in a convenience store—those 24-by-7 establishments loyally visited by night shift employees on break. Over steaming cups of instant noodles, they imagine their weapons of choice for a zombie apocalypse. The comedy is welcome but never excessive; it is as if the film’s sense of humor is itself tired and sleepy.
The companionship changes both of them. Early in the film, Gem and Barry are sleepyheads, wasting away their nights awake on their beds; at work, they spend their breaks with heads on desks, always chasing after the sleep they cannot get at night. But as the story goes on, they grow less and less sleepy.
They find that the city at night is often lonely, but comforting in its own way. They discover that there is warmth in its cold streets, especially if one has someone to navigate it with. Sleep eludes them, so in their wakefulness they try to escape life. They find joy in each other’s friendship: they try out skateboarding; they hang out at rooftops, convenience stores, and the neighborhood pares restaurant; they watch other people talking and imagine what goes on in the conversations they cannot hear.
Yet, Sleepless is not a romance; it only masquerades as one. It is not about insomniacs falling in love with each other. The film, following the cue of the dysfunctional light bulb in Gem’s bathroom, is a story about brokenness.
We find out that Gem feels estranged from her mother (Irma Adlawan), who had remarried after her father died of cancer. At the pares joint with Barry, she looks at all the other couples dining and tells Barry that they are all cheaters. She thinks there is a ‘polygamous gene’, that all men are naturally unfaithful. Not surprisingly, Gem is revealed be in an affair herself with a sophisticated married man, Vince (TJ Trinidad). Vince treats her mostly like a precious, pretty object to show off when he goes to fine restaurants and art galleries. (Gem mentions to Barry that she does not like her name, that it is too precious and she deserves something more ordinary.) Once, lonely and sleepless while lying on her bed, Gem rings Vince’s phone to no avail; here she is, a call center agent who spends her days selling services to faceless people halfway across the world, but in her loneliest moments her own phone is useless and uncomforting.
In another scene, Vince brings Gem to look at an exhibit of abstract art. They stare at a canvas of meaningless geometric lines; Vince plays art professor, and tells Gem to appreciate the depth of impressions that the piece evokes. She resists, saying that she prefers the clear, familiar, and plainly comprehensible. Later, Vince leaves her to congratulate the artist. The camera pans to Gem, splendid in her fashionable dress, but surrounded by gallery pieces in the frame, some of which portray human eyes—suggesting her place in Vince’s world, which is to be just another artwork, just another beautiful but powerless object to gaze at.
Barry, incidentally, keeps drawings in his apartment. These are art pieces of the clear, familiar, comprehensible variety that Gem appreciates. But Sleepless is not a romance and this is not a plot device to nudge Gem’s heart and make her fall for Barry; the drawings instead lead Barry to reveal his own brokenness.
We learn of Barry’s son, Jason, and the mother who took him away, separating him from Barry, and leaving for another country. The drawings that Barry treasure so much are of Jason. We watch Barry and Gem shop for toys, so he can pack them into a box of love he can send to the only clue he has of Jason’s whereabouts: an address in Canada whose accuracy he cannot even verify. Here we see it again: a broken person whose job requires him to reach across to all sorts of people far away, yet in a personal capacity cannot connect with the kid who matters to him most.
Sleepless denies us an easy, satisfying climax. It asks us to be like Vince, looking at a seemingly plain story, brows knotted as we try to derive meaning from it. But, as suggested by the flickering lamp in Gem’s bathroom, which has been long defective and would never have been fixed, had no outsider entered Gem’s life and pointed out what needs fixing: there is indeed a subtle thread to be found that serves as the film’s story arc. Gem and Barry’s encounter, while not the romantic engagement the film misleads us into expecting, fulfills their character’s destinies. It changes them and enables them to do what they needed to do with their lives. It is the healing experience of an earnest, comfortable friendship that allows them to overcome their brokenness.
Barry finally gets the chance to fly to Canada, to embark on a difficult search for his family. The funds for the trip come from a piece of jewellery owned by Gem, which was given to her by Vince but which she sells willingly to help Barry. The act is doubly symbolic, as Gem herself at last finds the courage to let go of Vince.
We know that they have reached a turning point because one night, the insomniacs find themselves finally able to fall asleep, next to each other on Gem’s bed. When the morning sun wakes them up, they look at one another and smile—not because something happened between them, no, there was no romance; but because they know that while they still have many things to fix in their lives, they have found a kindred spirit in each other.
Sleepless won the NETPAC Jury Prize for Best Picture at the Circle Competition section of the 2015 QCinema Film Festival. Dominic Roco also won Best Actor. It was directed by Prime Cruz and written by Jen Chuaunsu.
The film is scored by BP Valenzuela, whose musical sensibilities, it may be said, match the film’s themes and visual quality. She uses three of her songs from The Neon Hour for the film, including Steady, which kicks in during the film’s breathtaking final shot.
Minor edits were made to this article on Jan. 22 and on May 26, 2017. A further edit was made on June 3 to correct an erroneous statement that Gem is an illegitimate daughter.