Poets, fictionists, and all kinds of storytellers have a fixation for the city, or at least the idea of the city as a place. They pour a lot of thought into fleshing out this concept, to shape this imaginary community for their characters and purposes. Perhaps they find it wonderful how chaotic crowds of people find a measure of order when they walk down the same streets, just as seemingly disparate elements of stories seek structure to form a narrative. Perhaps they appreciate the density of districts, which radiate the sense that there is always a story to be found just around the corner, down the alleys, inside the buildings. There is always a lingering desire to find exciting things buried behind the dull details of life.
Gusto Kita with All My Hypothalamus is a captivating expression of this urge. The film, a love letter to Manila’s Avenida, weaves smoothly through the streets and spaces of the district as it tells the stories of four men linked together only by their common admiration for a woman named Aileen, who is played by Iana Bernardez in a stunning debut. She is introduced in the glorious opening scene, walking in slow-motion on the streets, to the music of Ikaw Pa Rin, a song one could easily imagine blaring from those karaoke units peddled at Raon.
The men carry weary outlooks and aggressive temperaments, the products of their harsh surroundings. Together they portray various manners of acting on desire, disordered in different ways. There is Nicco Manalo’s Caloy, the thrift shop assistant, whose daily joy it is to attend to Aileen’s frequent shopping. In her presence, he can barely find the words to speak, content in following her around the store, indulging her every cutesy request to have her pictures taken while wearing dresses she has not even paid for yet. In her absence, he schemes to set aside the best clothes in the store and arrange the furniture section for her photo sessions, while he struggles to pay the gratuitous discounts that he, and not the store, gives Aileen. His best pal and wingman is Winston, named like the cigarette, who has the sense to tell him how Aileen has become an addictive habit for which Caloy has no practical endgame planned.
There is Dylan Ray Talon’s Alex, the irresponsible and hedonistic college student, who finds in Aileen an escape from the tedium and responsibilities of his young life. In pursuing her he loses interest in, and respect for, his actual girlfriend Pam. There is Obeng—in a terrific, menacing performance by Anthony Falcon—the lonely thief, whose obsession with Aileen takes a fittingly materialist form: he stalks her and snatches her necklace and earrings, valuable physical pieces of her that he takes home for adoration. And there is Soliman Cruz’s Lando, both sympathetic and intriguingly aloof, a proprietor of a gloomy second-hand appliance shop. He is perhaps still loyal to his wife who has been dead for 12 years, because now he wants not women, but only whores.
Towards the end of the story, Aileen submits to the fantasies of the four men. She does so in ways suiting their individual styles, needs, and wants. She becomes seductive to Lando, youthful to Alex, and coy to Caloy; with Obeng, who does not speak in the film, she shares a wordless moment.
In doing so, Aileen perfects her character as an icon of desire and an object of devotion. Indeed, when Hypothalamus is described as mesmerizing, it might as well be reduced to that opening scene that introduces Aileen, an enthralling image that places her on a cinematic pedestal, inviting the viewer to regard her as the men do. To call this film as beautiful, hence, risks the accusation of judging with a male perspective—however, the film reveals itself to be a portrayal of just how damaging such a gaze, such a desiring, can be for the subject as much as it is for the object.
It is true that Aileen is objectified: throughout the film, she wears a uniform from an unknown job, constraining her individuality and idealizing her as a woman. In all the stories of the four men, she is the outsider, the other character. And, indeed, her agency is limited—but crucially, whatever action she takes of her own accord affords her a powerful hold over the men, which comes precisely from her being their much-coveted object of desire. The film heavily points to, but never explicitly tells, the ultimate futility of the men’s delirious quest to satiate their desires, and the costs of this pursuit; the film hides these just behind the alluring spectacle of Aileen. The attentive viewer will look further, to the smaller roles of Pam and Lando’s store assistant Maritess, the story’s two neglected but more fully realized women characters.
There is the additional complication, of course, of the question of who, or even what, is Aileen indeed; it is a question impossible to resolve in literal and logical terms. Her story is left unexplained, so that her mystery, and desirability, might be kept intact.
Nevertheless, the lines of Mikael Co’s Panawagan, the poem that Pam reads over one of the film’s most sublime sequences, offer an interpretation.
Aileen, perhaps, is the personification of the city, and this film fulfills a cinematic daydreaming about Manila. Like the historic, and storied, city, Aileen is an ever-mysterious muse, perfectly malleable, always satisfying her dreamer’s imaginations.
Hypothalamus is then, above all else, an ode to desire and its role in the life of the city. Just as it is said that the hypothalamus, and not the heart, is the organ that truly animates a man—it is our fundamental need to dream and desire, and not necessarily any higher purpose or principle, that carries people through life, that keeps the city bustling, thriving, and throbbing.
As the poet declares in the closing verses of Panawagan:
Ito ang lungsod.
Kanina ka pa niyang pinipilit abutin.
Sa likod ng mga gusali, maliwanag na.
Minor line edits were made to this article on Mar. 6, 2021.