I Found My Heart in Santa Fe is a movie with an efficient title. All the information you need to set your expectations—on the film’s genre, tone, sensibilities—can be inferred from those choices of words.
It is also a film proud that it was independently produced, yet it has an overwhelmingly mainstream flavor. In aiming to please crowds, it refuses to strive for originality, even when its mode of production gives it all the freedom to do something different. The freshness of its setting is therefore lost in the familiarity of its tricks.
I Found My Heart in Santa Fe is a self-assured rom-com about a half-Filipino tourist, Viktor (Will Devaughn), falling in love with a morena islander, Jennifer (Roxanne Barcelo). In this film, there are provocative slow-motion shots of the leading man taking off his shirt, as well as of the leading lady emerging from the sea in a bikini. Jennifer has a support group of friends, with stock, cartoonish personalities, who have no discernible life of their own and exists in the story only to cheer our protagonist in her quest for love. Early in the film, people burst into dance, in the town and on the beach, to the tune of Roxanne’s catchy and pun-filled ‘Morena’. (“Mamahalin mo rin, mo rin, morena ‘ko…”) Later, when it is time to bring out the kilig, the film conjures another song by Roxanne, this time a yearning cover of ‘Morning, Noon and Night Time’.
None of these are bad elements, and for the most part the film pulls them off with technical skill. But neither are they memorable, and any viewer’s enjoyment (or at least tolerance) of this film hangs on acceptance of such tropes. They add nothing to a film that, from its conception, is already challenged with leaving a mark.
The aspect that is most clearly lacking in Santa Fe is its story. It leans on revelations and twists that neither surprise nor impress. That is unfortunate, because one of these turns is crucial to explaining why Jennifer acts the way she does in the first half of the story.
A dream sequence marks a turning point mid-way in the story, and the scene is appropriately surreal but frustratingly vague. The attempt at a creative flourish could have been interesting, but the rest of the film is so straightforward that the sequence simply feels dissonant, out of place. Soon after this scene, Jennifer and Viktor take a tour of Kinatarcan island—the irritable Jennifer is forced to warm up to Viktor only because she lost a bet in an evening card game.
Sometimes, the story decides, with good intention, to leave a few details out. It happens, justifiably, early in the story, building the tension up to a moment of (non-)revelation. But it happens again late in the film, and this time the subtlety is ill-placed, resulting in a third act that is almost more confusing than rewarding.
Yet, all these attempts at grace prove that the filmmakers have a good sense of cinematic language, if not of storytelling. Sometimes the skill shines through; it surfaces, in particular, in a few tense, silent, and prolonged shots. Two of these involve Jennifer and Viktor, in those few scenes where sparks fly between them without aid from a swelling soundtrack. Another involves Viktor at the climactic scene for an unsubstantial subplot, that is nevertheless well-acted.
The other virtues of Santa Fe include editing: despite the story’s failures, this is a well-paced film. There is also the sense of controlled sentimentality: the film is not as funny as it wants to be, but it also takes the dignified step of holding back on the melodrama. And while Jennifer’s spunk could be as irritating for some as it is endearing to others, everyone will appreciate Roxanne’s expressive face. The proudly morena actress, perfectly cast for the part of island beauty, knows how to contort her features in both subtle and exaggerated angles, as the tone of the scene demands. (On her faux-Visayan accent: let Cebuano native-speakers be the judge.)
I Found My Heart in Santa Fe’s chief filmmaker, Bona Fajardo, has stated that this story has always been about a foreigner character. It begs the question: is this film about exploring foreigners’ place in, and relationship with, our beautiful, tropical islands? Or is it about examining our own (Filipinos’) attitude and relationship with them, the visitors? Jennifer at one point says, “Basta dayo, manloloko”; is it about exploitation? Foreigners, both the tourists, as well as the other characters with more permanent interests, are after all a constant feature on the film’s backdrop. (Though Viktor himself never feels like an outsider, due to his competently spoken Tagalog.)
These questions are absurd, almost satirical, in the context of the film’s cheerfulness. If there were any intentions for commentary, they are lost in this story’s sunny aspirations. Indeed, if this film has any clear-cut achievement, it has to be the fulfillment of its promise to be a positive, bright-outlook movie, which it realizes through its setting. I Found My Heart in Santa Fe is hard to beat as a travelogue: as it delivers dazzling, natural visuals, it captures the sparkle, energy and goodwill of an upbeat vacation island-town.
And yet, the film could have been so much more had it explored its location as more than a romanticized destination. There are token allusions here and there, seeds of ideas that remain uncultivated—like Viktor’s search for his mother, his green-technology venture, and life at the Village of Hope community—that are never fully realized. The film spends all its time in Santa Fe, yet by its end, the story only feels like a glimmer of a vacation, rather than a memorable, meaningful immersion or adventure.
Film still courtesy of BluArt Productions.