“Out of sight, out of mind”, the saying goes. People tend not to think about, or at least be aware of, things that are not visible. But visibility is not enough—the saying should really come with a complementary proverb: out of hearing, out of meaning.
At the heart of Isa Pa, With Feelings, the new, humble film by Prime Cruz, is this message: that things out of our sight and out of our mind, things we take for granted such as the sense of hearing, create invisible worlds that bind people together, but that can also separate and isolate them. And because these are invisible worlds, they are not usually on our minds, we usually do not notice them—until we start truly paying attention, not just with our eyes but also with our ears. Because to understand people, for them to mean something, it is not enough to see them—we also have to hear them.
Isa Pa, With Feelings tells us this through the love story of Mara (Maine Mendoza), a junior associate at an architecture firm, and Gali (Carlo Aquino), a sign language teacher who is himself deaf. (Gali’s disability eventually becomes a focal point of the story, as expected, but it is notable that his character looks normal at first: his character enjoys an apparently regular young, middle-class lifestyle, including such privileges as driving a car and living in a condo, in contrast to, for example, the 2009 film Dinig Sana Kita, where the lead deaf character is presented as obviously disadvantaged from the outset.) The two meet when Mara decides to take sign language lessons, because she has a deaf niece, and they discover they are in fact neighbors. Mara fails the licensure exam that everyone—her family, friends and colleagues included—expect her to pass easily, and in the aftermath she finds herself growing closer to Gali.
Warning: this review and analysis includes spoilers.
The movie, overall, just works, despite it making the standard romantic movie beats in a blatant fulfillment of the rom-com formula. That is partly due to its sincerity, manifested in its minimalism: though it goes through the obligatory rom-com story elements (like the scenes where Mara and Gali are advised by their friends about the budding romance, or the part where Mara goes home to her comforting parents after a particularly difficult day), the film never indulges in them. It’s like stripping music down to an essence, throwing out the melody and leaving only the rhythm.
The bigger reason that this movie works, however, is the particularly effective casting. It’s one of the key things that takes this film from okay to really good and enjoyable. Mendoza started her celebrity career as Yaya Dub in the noontime show Eat Bulaga!, a character who initially communicated only via lip-syncing to various audio clips. Hers is not the deaf character this time around, but she has to communicate with one, and her expressiveness, delivered with much control in this film, leads to an impressive and very entertaining performance. Aquino for his part complements her performance with his unique brand of profound restraint, communicating effectively Gali’s doubts as well as joys in this blooming romance.
Further elevating this film, not just as a movie for entertainment but as a work of art, are the riffs it makes on the theme of hearing. Gali’s character explicitly expresses the idea that being deaf assigns people to a different world, a world with its own language, a world superficially shared with the hearing but invisibly and profoundly separated from theirs. Coincidentally, this idea is vital to the making of a movie itself, to the art of filmmaking.
On a surface level, Isa Pa, With Feelings gives us the standard visual pleasures of a film. The cinematography by Prime Cruz’s go-to director of photography Tey Clamor is consistently pretty on an immediate, sensory level. Gali and Mara’s condo units (decorated by another Prime Cruz collaborator, production designer Nestor Abrogena) look like designer apartments anyone would love to live in. Even the licensure examination scene looks lovely, set in a spacious hall, with the examinees somehow wearing color-coordinated outfits.
The movie, however, also offers more on a deeper level, presenting elements visible but not articulated and therefore not fully understandable, not immediately. These elements are ones that Isa Pa, With Feelings communicates through film language—because films do have a language of their own, which audiences can learn either by constant exposure or deliberate study, and which grants them access to another world of meaning, not unlike the sign language that Mara learns and masters through the course of the story, in parallel with her deepening relationship with Gali, giving her greater access to his world. There is the frequent use of short-side framing early in the film, communicating the characters’ sense of isolation, and which is seen less and less as the story progresses, further reflecting the growing bond between Gali and Mara. This framing is also used in a scene between Mara and her parents, to underline the disconnection between their certainty about what they want for her, and her confusion about what she wants for herself.
Another example is that poignant montage after Mara learns of her failure to pass the exam, showing her figure front and center in a succession of shots utilizing a shallow depth-of-field, accompanied by strong, emotional music drowning out the words from the background conversations—a cinematic representation of the intense isolation and shock she is feeling in those moments.
One filmmaking technique that stands out in Isa Pa, With Feelings is the use of text. There is text as in digital text conversations, which in this film is presented as plain text, stripped of the distracting user interfaces usually accompanying such scenes in other movies. The plain text is overlaid on a view from the outside of Gali and Mara’s neighboring condo units, isolated from the characters’ faces and voices, making the audience feel the disembodied nature of such digital conversations in real life. One such conversation in the film even has both characters begin to type their messages at the same time, represented by bouncing ellipses, only for one of them to stop, and the conversation ends with a polite “good night”; this is brilliant, because it conveys the hesitation and awkwardness of such online exchanges, something that most films fail to achieve because of an annoying presentation. (One of the few other Filipino films able to present such a meaningful, plot-advancing digital conversation is 2013’s Shift.)
There is also text as in subtitles: while Mara often speaks while she signs to Gali (perhaps the filmmakers’ decision, to lessen the reading load on audiences), Gali of course can only be understood by non-sign-language-fluent audiences through subtitles. The filmmakers enhance their storytelling by exploiting this: for most of the film, the subtitles for Gali’s sign language is presented from Mara’s perspective; sometimes the subtitles are incomplete, with some of the words left as blanks, reflecting Mara’s inability to understand some of the signs, especially earlier in the story. This works to deepen the audience’s empathy with Mara in such scenes, as it makes the audience share in her confusion. It even works to raise the tension in some scenes: a particularly clever instance has Gali asking Mara permission to do something dangerous; she does not understand, but politely nods her assent in reply.
(The subtitles for Isa Pa, With Feelings are actually captions, i.e. they transcribe not just dialogue but also non-verbal sounds, and therefore, quite appropriately, this film can also cater to deaf viewers in theaters.)
Just as this film expands our awareness of the world of the deaf, it also gives us a reminder that sounds are as important as sights in the art of storytelling in film. It plays a part in characterization: in the scene where Mara enters Gali’s condo unit for the first time, Gali excitedly prepares glassware for her, the glassware clinking loudly, to Mara’s visible discomfort though Gali does not notice, leading the audience to realize that, as a deaf person, Gali has probably never been bothered by such sounds. Isa Pa, With Feelings also represents Gali’s perspective several times by cutting down the sound, eliminating the sound of words in dialogue or reducing loud music to muffled beats, in an attempt not only to let us see the world through Gali’s eyes, but also to let us hear it as he hears it—as an endless silence, or, at most, vague vibrations. What makes it even more remarkable is the film’s choice to do this during the most exciting scenes—the sound suddenly fades to nearly nothing in the middle of a beautiful musical moment, or in the heat of an aggressive argument, heightening the sense of frustration on Gali’s part, achieving for Gali’s character what the blanks in the subtitles achieves for Mara.
And yet all this skilled use of film language, this careful orchestration of sound and sight, would not mean much if it were not in service of constructing a world; movies are after all worlds in themselves, worlds inhabited by characters, worlds that audiences willingly get lost in. The world that Isa Pa, With Feelings presents is one defined by isolation. This is a theme the film shares with Prime Cruz’s previous works Sleepless and Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B, all films where the main characters live in neighboring apartments, finding connection in a city ravaged by an epidemic of isolation and loneliness in spite of superficial proximity, in spite of a modern world supposedly growing more connected than ever. When Mara asks Gali about his fascination with fish and aquariums, he explains that he finds in them a symbol of the isolation he feels himself. The aquarium’s glass walls are like the invisible barriers that keep people’s hearts apart, though their bodies may be close together; the division distorts their sense of space, the distant appearing to be close, and the close appearing to be distant. That brief but exhilarating scene, when Mara dives into the pool with Gali, is therefore more meaningful than it looks: it is the turning point in their love story, when she finally, literally and figuratively, chooses to immerse herself fully in his world.
Curiously, the film sets up subplots that disappear as the story goes on. Mara’s deaf niece, ostensibly the reason she wanted to study sign language in the first place, is never seen again; the rest of her family, who has always been the source of meaning for her professional aspirations, similarly disappears late in the story. Mara’s colleagues urge her to retake the exam and stay in the firm as a junior associate while she tries to get her license—yet we never learn if she does stay on, and if she does pass eventually. Gali, meanwhile, is applying for a scholarship to a top school for deaf persons, and, likewise, we do not get to know about the results. All of these are glitches in the film, but only if we are following a strict cause-and-effect handbook of storytelling. From the point of view of the heart of the film, it makes sense that these elements grow irrelevant as the story progresses towards its end—because this film is about Mara and Gali’s love story first and foremost, about Gali’s world that Mara falls into, and which she accepts wholeheartedly. We, the audience, too are pulled into this brave new world, and by the end it is as if nothing else matters but the story of these two, here and now.
Shortly before that ending, Gali and Mara’s relationship encounters a crisis. They talk about it in what looks like a restaurant, that is tellingly empty, save for the two of them. And then, in the breathtaking final dance scene, they are, again, alone—not literally, because there are people watching them, but that audience remains unseen. They begin dancing to ‘Sino’, and it goes well until Gali falters and panics. But Mara reassures him, tapping the beat on his chest with her hand, and they start again, this time to ‘Buwan’, which has always been their song. We cannot tell if they indeed got back on track, or if they simply started dancing to their own beat, without any regard for the music—we are completely in their universe now. The dance finishes and they nevertheless draw a round of applause from the crowd, but those people are only heard, not seen, remaining a world apart from the one that is now front and center, an aquarium where Gali and Mara have each other and nothing else.
In this way, Isa Pa, With Feelings further shares with Sleepless and Manananggal the same theme of isolation overcome by a kind of love, of brokenness healed by empathy, although this latest film sets itself apart with the refreshing lightness of its perspective. It blissfully ignores the darker social issues that its spiritual predecessors tackle, so that it could tell a blithe story of romance. Often, such a recklessness is undesirable; we could call it out as a love too naive and simplistic. But in a world wracked by too much senseless noise, perhaps we could say for once that all we need is a love pure and heroic.
See (hear) also: Third World Cinema Club’s interview with Prime Cruz and co-writer Jen Chuaunsu.