It is the late 1990s in the province of Pampanga. Several years have passed since the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo that buried so many of the province’s towns under massive volumes of debris. The volcanic material combine with rainwater from perennial typhoons to produce lahar; the government builds the Megadike in an attempt to contain its destructive power.
Meanwhile, American military forces have recently evacuated the bases in Clark air field and nearby Subic Bay, partly as a result of the Pinatubo disaster, and partly as a result of political decisions by a nation asserting its sovereignty.
This is the backdrop of 2 Cool 2 Be 4gotten, though the film obscures the consequences of its setting behind blithe cinematography, frames color-graded to a fresh and hopeful palette. Even the aspect ratio is an unusual 5:4. The combined visual effect evokes the nostalgia of old Kodak photos—a nostalgia that tends to summon simple, happy recollections while conveniently forgetting painful, complicated memories.
Petersen Vargas, in a limited résumé consisting of such shorts as Geography Lessons and the music video for BP Valenzuela’s Steady, has already demonstrated a distinct style before working on 2 Cool. Sometimes, as with Steady, he paints a mood through the cinematic equivalent of sweet nothings—stylized, mesmerizing visuals with no particular statements. Sometimes, as with this film, his first full-length work, he maximizes cinematic language in telling his story, while still infusing it with his unique gaze. Combine this directorial reputation with young actors capable of competent, convincing performances, and we have a compelling film in our hands.
Warning: this review presents a reading of the film, and it necessarily shares details of plot and other elements, or ‘spoilers’.
2 Cool 2 Be 4gotten introduces us to Felix Salonga (Khalil Ramos), an exemplary student. The secondary school he attends is implementing an English-speaking policy. The teachers, not content with calling Filipino languages barbaric, brand the use of Kapampangan on campus as a ‘barriotic’ act (thereby equating the barrio, a rural village, with backwardness). They declare this using their own faulty diction. In Felix’s school, the teachers have clear ambitions for the top performers in class: that they will go on to find work abroad. This is the ‘OFW dream’, institutionalized.
The school Felix attends have cold, unpainted walls, as if the rush to rebuild the structures after the onslaught of lahar left no budget for ornamentation. Contrast this with what Felix considers the greatest legacy of the American servicemen in Clark: pretty houses and ‘fascinating people’.
One such fascinating person arrives one day in Felix’s class: Magnus Snyder (Ethan Salvador), a half-American transferee. His foreign appearance, out of place in the school’s forlorn surroundings, is striking. His arrival is the catalyst for what 2 Cool 2 Be 4gotten becomes in its second act: a coming-of-age story, at least superficially. We watch the familiar plot of an eccentric school achiever developing a friendship with a well-admired but academically-challenged student. 2 Cool complicates this through Magnus, who, with his brother Maxim (Jameson Blake), stirs strange new desires in the usually-aloof Felix, culminating in Felix’s uncomfortable responses to his sexual awakening. (Recall the symbolic opening shot of the film: a close-up of Felix, opening his eyes.)
(As an aside: so many elements in 2 Cool 2 Be 4gotten recall Petersen Vargas’ earlier work in the short film Lisyun qng Geografia/Geography Lessons: the setting in Pampanga, the high-school student characters, the themes of friendship and sexual confusion, even specific images like friends walking among tall, picturesque grass.)
There are plenty of ways with which we can understand this story of Felix’s friendship with the Snyder brothers. Here is one that is easy to discern yet deserving of further reflection: 2 Cool 2 Be 4gotten is post-colonial cinema, and its characters form an overt allegory for the struggles of a nation with a deep colonial past. Felix, in this fiction, portrays the frailties of the best of us. He is usually unemotional, but his walls crumble when the beautiful new strangers disrupt his environment. Magnus, the first time he talks to Felix, is framed such that the flare of the sun obscures his face; we see that Felix is not immune to the exotic, blinding radiance of his new friend.
Felix, for all his intelligence, unknowingly internalizes the problematic notion that what is foreign is beautiful, what is foreign is superior. In his logical, contemplated journal entries, he acknowledges that the half-foreign brothers are the new alpha males of the school. Even the things that bond him to Magnus are foreign objects: an old Walkman player, and the Omegaboy figure (a reference to the Japanese action character Ultraman).
The hesitance and uncertainties of Felix’s sexual identity and desires is merely the most conflicted manifestation of the larger struggle he is experiencing: the struggle of questioning and reshaping his entire identity as he is confronted with new friends, experiences, even dreams. The character of Felix is a mirror, at a small scale, of a nation that is constantly negotiating its identity while facing the dangerous allure and uncertain promises of foreign cultures.
In this interpretation, Magnus and Maxim are but two opposing faces of one representation: the good and the bad aspects of the foreign presence. Magnus, although initiating his relationship with Felix only out of necessity, is nevertheless appreciative and accepting of the ‘native’/local character. Towards the end he succeeds in offering genuine friendship. Maxim, in contrast, is hostile, and is only too willing to exploit the locals for his selfish, sinister ends. Consider the economic aspect of the trio’s relationship: Magnus pays Felix for his informal tutoring services, but earnestly works with him to improve his school marks. Maxim also pays Felix, but expects him to do all the homework by himself: the transaction is a completely commodified service. Extrapolated to a social, international scale, isn’t this what is happening in our globalized, post-colonial economy, where developed nations alternatingly patronize then bully developing countries?
Lest we forget, the American colonial period’s primary legacy is education, according to the dominant account of Philippine history. It was the great gift of American magnanimity to a fledgling nation. In 2 Cool 2 Be 4gotten, which employs education as a theme and setting, the ironic effect of this legacy is in full display: citizens of the former colony are now being educated to eventually find employment in the land of the former colonial masters. Felix himself subscribes to an idea of education as liberation, though his academic achievements have induced a misdirected sense of superiority in him. He is doing well in English, and, talking to Magnus, claims that English allows him to better express himself. It is as if he feels that a good grasp of the language grants him exclusive identification with the Snyder brothers. There is also Felix’s fellow topnotcher in class, a minor character we do not get to know more, but regardless tells us something about Felix as she falls victim to his cathartic, passive-aggressive behavior. Why is Felix so dismissive of her, even as he becomes enamored with the Snyders?
Felix, like many educated Filipinos, likes to believe that rationality sets him apart from most of his countrymen. Two comedic points in the story reveal this: the oft-repeated rumors that a demonic cult is on a murderous hunt for human heads in the community, and the episode when one of Felix’s classmates is ostensibly possessed by a spirit. The town is gripped in fear with these developments, but Felix dismisses their irrationality, as he is preoccupied with his Snyder brothers affair.
And yet, Felix is powerless when his human nature catches up with him. One rowdy night with Magnus and Maxim, when the brothers pressure him to dance and drink alcohol for the first time, he initially calls their actions ‘pubescent’, even extolling the virtues of resisting temporary pleasures and delaying gratification. But curiosity and temptation overcome him, and he finds himself waking up on the Snyders’ living room, with a hangover, the next morning.
It recalls what Felix tells Magnus as they hang out at the site of Felix’s former home, now buried under a field of volcanic slurry: as everyone around him was weeping after losing everything to the lahar, he was the weirdo who stood in awe, watching the “power of nature”. Felix lived a steady, confident life before he met Magnus and Maxim; but when faced with the unstoppable forces of his own nature, he could not help but feel like he was losing grip on everything, and in the rubble of the aftermath, he is forced to start all over again.
It is fitting that 2 Cool 2 Be 4gotten is set in Pampanga in the heartland of Luzon, because the province is a microcosm of the Philippine experience. Lahar and Clark Airbase, nearby Mt. Pinatubo and Subic Bay: these are the symbols of the disasters that ravage its lands, the imperialism that rapes its culture. Through these trials, people and individuals emerge, with unique identities to be proud of and important stories to tell.
The screen-captures in this article were sourced from the film’s official press kit.