The city, or the abstraction of this place, is an irresistible fixation for poets, fictionists and all kinds of storytellers, who spend much time imagining and fleshing out this concept or community, whichever form the city takes 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 structuring 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. We all constantly desire to find the exciting things buried underneath the dreary 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 (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 being sold at Raon.
The men carry weary outlooks or aggressive temperaments, the products of their harsh surroundings. Collectively, they portray various manners of acting on desire, disordered in different ways. There is Caloy (Nicco Manalo), 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, obeying her every polite but otherwise annoying request to take pictures of her in the 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 and her photo sessions, even while he struggles to pay the gratuitous discounts he (and not the store) gives her. His best pal and wingman is Winston (like the cigarette; played by Nestor Abrogena), who has the sense to tell him, every now and then, how Aileen has become a habit for which Caloy has no practical endgame planned.
There is Alex (Dylan Ray Talon), 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 (Ash Nicanor). There is Obeng (a terrific, menacing Anthony Falcon), the lonely thief, whose obsession with Aileen takes a fittingly materialist form: he stalks her and snatches her necklace and earrings, valuable pieces of her that he then takes home for adoration. And there is Lando (Soliman Cruz, in a performance both sympathetic and intriguingly aloof), proprietor of a second-hand appliance shop, a widower for 12 years already but seemingly still loyal to his dead wife, because now he wants not women, only whores.
Towards the end of the story, Aileen responds to the fantasies of the four men. She acts in ways suiting their individual styles, needs, and wants. She becomes seductive to Lando, youthful to Alex, 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 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 blinding spectacle of Aileen. The attentive viewer will look further, to the smaller roles of Pam and Maritess (Lando’s store assistant, played by Angela Castraverde), the story’s two neglected but 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 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 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 what 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.
From the closing verses of Panawagan:
Ito ang lungsod.
Kanina ka pa niyang pinipilit abutin.
Sa likod ng mga gusali, maliwanag na.