An enthusiastic crowd converged at a cinema complex in Quezon City, on a Tuesday night in early January. The occasion: the premiere of the restored film, Labs Kita, Okey Ka Lang?, which features the ’90s love team of Jolina Magdangal and Marvin Agustin. The people in attendance, many of them barely containing their excitement, proved that the pair can still rally a good crowd of supporters.
The actors may have been glamorous in their presence, but the true star of the night was the film itself, a classic Star Cinema romantic comedy. After the screening, a few guests started comparing the movie to entries from the recently-concluded Metro Manila Film Festival. A fellow guest, with a mixture of disgust and an aficionado’s righteousness, cried, “Don’t compare!” Because it is absurd to label an old film as formulaic, when it hails from a time when such storytelling conventions were still being established.
And that is true. Let us take a closer look at what exactly makes this rom-com a classic.
Note: this review includes spoilers for this film, as well as for Ang Babae sa Septic Tank 2 (2016) and Vince & Kath & James (2016).
Labs Kita is a story about Bujoy (Jolina Magdangal), a college student who harbors romantic feelings for her best pal and childhood friend Ned (Marvin Agustin). Conflict begins when Ned is attracted to Bujoy’s sosyal cousin Mary Ann (Vanessa del Bianco), while Bujoy herself is courted by well-meaning Cenon (Gio Alvarez). It is a now-classic and instantly familiar story, and contemporary culture has indeed birthed the colloquial word, friendzoning, for this stereotypical romantic conflict.
Comparing this film to some of MMFF 2016’s romances may be absurd in the bigger scheme of things, but it is not baseless. For example, Ang Babae sa Septic Tank 2‘s film-within-a-film shares a lot of elements with Labs Kita. Both are set in Baguio City; both feature shots of couples horsing around on the grass with a backdrop of pine trees; both involve the lovers turning to their parents for advice in their darkest hour; and, in what is one of Septic Tank 2‘s funniest parodies but which in Labs Kita‘s time would have been one of its most satisfying moments, both films feature the woman in a climactic chase for her man, who has decided to leave the city on a bus. When the woman arrives at the terminal, she is too late, and sees the bus leaving—but when all seems lost, the man shows up behind the leaving bus, having taken a different bus in reality; and the couple reunite.
Of course, Septic Tank 2 is not poking fun at a specific film, but rather an entire genre that has since embodied the idea of overused conventions. Numerous rom-coms produced after Labs Kita, or even before it, have used the same tired elements. What we should appreciate is that Labs Kita is part of the reason that these very conventions feel overused today.
The value of formulas in cinema, or in all of storytelling for that matter, is a debate for a different time, but we can extract a quick insight from another MMFF 2016 entry. Vince and Kath and James has fewer elements in common with Labs Kita—including the story of secret feelings for an old friend, the idea of being true to one’s self in the presence of a romantic partner, and, most frustrating for some, the lack of a kiss at the ending of the film. But we should note that both films came from the same mainstream studio, and, if anything, what Vince and Kath and James proves is that an old story, if crafted earnestly and embellished with fresh nuances, can still be the heart of a good film.
Indeed, even if Labs Kita‘s story is as familiar as the street outside your window, when we watch Ned gift Bujoy with teddy bears and personally-picked flowers, or when Bujoy teases and pinches Ned’s nose, we cannot help but be mesmerized by this classic love team again. Formula or not, that is magic that works.
Art from art
The common internal struggle that the protagonists in Labs Kita, Okey Ka Lang? deal with is youthful insecurity, and the film reflects on this theme in a manifest manner.
It starts with the location, Baguio, a muse of Filipino cinema. The highland town possesses a vertical dimension absent in most other cities, and the films gives us such a strange sight as Ned and Bujoy’s neighboring houses, erected on sloping land and with rope ladders latched onto their bedroom windows. Complement this with the city’s cool climate, a perpetual excuse for residents to sport bright and pastel sweaters, and we have a picture that recalls the tones of Western fairy tales. (There is the character of Mayo, played by Meryll Soriano, and Bujoy’s best girl friend, or bes in 2017 slang, who is notorious for her flamboyant, often-ridiculed fashion sense.)
But it is not only a beautiful place: the film justifies its setting by incorporating the city’s vibrant art scene into its story. Ned is a budding musician, and Bujoy is skilled in clay sculpting. Ned’s band is practicing for an upcoming audition, but he is struggling to finish his songwriting; meanwhile, Cenon joins the band, and argues that they should not waste time on original music. Cenon then leads the band to perform his arrangement of a popular song, saying that covers are what people want to hear now. This episode recalls the earlier days of OPM and the creative climate of Labs Kita‘s time, when originality in music was a divisive issue. (With the apparent decline of mainstream OPM and the accompanying rise of niche subcultures around contemporary Filipino music, this debate has disappeared from the public consciousness.)
Incidentally, the song that Cenon arranges for the band is Eraserheads’ “Ang Huling El Bimbo”. The lyrics mirror the romantic tension between Ned and Bujoy: “Magkahawak ang ating kamay at walang kamalay-malay / Na tinuruan mo ang puso ko na umibig nang tunay”. (“While we joined our hands, and learned how to dance / You also taught me love, while lost in trance”)
And this is Ned’s insecurity: his continued struggle at songwriting, stoked by Cenon’s arrival in the band. Meanwhile, Bujoy is crafting good clay sculptures by hand in her room. Her mother Marissa (Hilda Koronel) notices her talent, but initially only comments, passively, on her sense of inferiority. So when Ned and friends organize an arts festival to celebrate young Baguio artists, they prod on Bujoy to join the sculpture competition.
This leads to a turning point in the story: to make up for her insecurity, Bujoy asks Ned to be present for her in the competition, but that he should not bring Mary Ann so as not to divide his support and attention. Not only is Ned late to the competition, but he also breaks his promise and arrives at the venue with Mary Ann. Bujoy breaks down and walks out. When Ned follows and confronts her, Bujoy delivers the now-iconic lines: “Oh yes, kaibigan mo ‘ko, kaibigan mo lang ako…and I’m so stupid to make the biggest mistake of falling in love with my best friend…”
Labs Kita, from this climactic confrontation, takes a winded route until its resolution and happy ending. As previously noted, rom-coms of this kind are not resolved without parental intervention. But in this film, the essential, relationship-saving parental advice ties back into the theme of art.
Ned’s father Canor (Ronaldo Valdez) is a miner who is unable to keep a steady livelihood. He was once a musician, like Ned, and even played music for a livelihood in Japan. Now that Ned’s mother Cora (Gina Pareño) is needling him for being useless in the household, he cries that he had to make a choice between his two loves. And choose he did, giving up his dreams for Cora. He traded his art for industry, his passion for love. Ned is stunned at this scene, which perhaps surpasses even the intensity of Bujoy’s earlier confession.
The insight feeds a quieter encounter later at night, between Canor and Ned. Seeing his frustration in front of the piano, Canor tells Ned that perhaps he cannot finish writing his song because he is doing it for himself. Self-centered passion is not enough for art; to be truly capable of art, it has to be created for someone the artist loves.
Armed with this advice, and with Bujoy in his mind and heart, he finally finishes writing his song. And the song becomes the key to Ned and Bujoy’s happy ending, dramatic chase and sunset overlooking a valley included.
When a film like Labs Kita, Okey Ka Lang?, which might be quickly dismissed as too cheesy by self-righteous supporters of alternative cinema, has this much to say about art and the particular struggles of youth, then it would be cruel to not call it a piece of art in its own right.
The featured image for this article is a screen-capture from the restoration trailer; credits to YouTube/ABS-CBN Entertainment.