A shiny black BMW pulls up in front of SM Megamall and Donny Pangilinan emerges from the driver’s seat in a dark blue suit, the gold chain around his neck jangling as he rushes to open the passenger door. He holds out his hand and Belle Mariano climbs out, her bright pink mini-dress and matching heels growing brighter under the red carpet lights. Known together as DonBelle, Pangilinan and Mariano hold hands as they make their way up to the cinema, their fans (called “Bubblies”) form halos around the escalators at all levels, the two greeting them with bright smiles and handshakes.
It’s the premiere night of their new film “An Inconvenient Love” — the first Star Cinema film commercially screened in a theater in more than two years. Coincidentally, the last one, “James and Pat and Dave,” concluded by introducing Pangilinan and Mariano as a possible pairing. In between was “Love at First Stream,” though it played as part of the 2021 Metro Manila Film Festival. Now, they are ushering its theatrical comeback on its 30th anniversary, traveling from Dubai and Singapore to Las Vegas and beyond to promote the new film.
Much has happened between these two films, especially the shutdown of ABS-CBN and the global pandemic made it difficult to create any momentum to introduce new talent to established audiences. But despite these hurdles, DonBelle broke through the noise with the digital series “He’s Into Her,” a coming-of-age romcom series based on the Wattpad entries of Maxinejiji, where provincial hothead Maxpein Luna (Mariano) and aloof basketball varsity captain Deib Lohr Enrile (Pangilinan) turn from high school enemies into the school’s power couple.
“It was very difficult na magpasikat ng talent kasi wala nang reach and we’re all just relying on digital,” says Kriz Gazmen, head of ABS-CBN Films, who expected DonBelle to connect to audiences but hadn’t anticipated the degree of support they’d receive in an unprecedented time. “Ang tingin talaga namin sa DonBelle, para siyang fairytale. That’s where the charm really is.”
“An Inconvenient Love” finds the two in more mature territory, struggling to balance their adolescent desires and the demands of being an adult. Ayef (Mariano) is a convenience store worker applying to become an animator in Singapore when she chances upon Manny (Pangilinan), a plant shop owner and activist. Ayef and Manny are surrounded by transactional relationships — friends who they only meet because of work, customers who go in and out of their respective stories, and even families who expect equivalent exchanges in terms of time, resources, and sacrifice. Thinking that their lives are already defined by these social contracts, they enter a relationship with the promise of convenience and wish fulfillment. But when love goes beyond reciprocity, when it asks that they shatter the glass walls they’ve built to protect themselves, what would they do?
Whether it’s summer flings (“Call Me By Your Name,” “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,”), disease (“Normal Heart,” “Angels in America”), marriage (“The Wedding Banquet”), or just the school year ending (“Love of Siam”), the time-bound nature of romance has always been characteristic of the best queer love stories. Star Cinema lifts a page from this by hiring Petersen Vargas (“Hello Stranger,” “2 Cool 2 Be 4Gotten”), whose strong visual signature and deep roots in queer cinema and the cinema of yearning proves to be a good fit. Vargas, alongside cinematographer Noel Teehankee, understands how to best communicate the gravitational pull between its leads — infusing nearly every scene with an incandescent glow, painting Mariano and Pangilinan more beautifully than ever. Working alongside editors Mai Calapardo and Benjamin Tolentino, Vargas and Teehankee use slow motion (albeit, at times, gratuitously and repetitively) to emphasize how time warps when the young lovers are together.
“An Inconvenient Love” captures the social isolation and the need for independence that seems characteristic of coming-of-age narratives post-pandemic. Writers Daisy Cayanan and Joaquin Enrico Santos situate the young love squarely under the guillotine of socioeconomic and sociopolitical turmoil — with the opening shot at the rallies and discussions about wage inequities weaving in and out of the narrative. While these attempts capture the milieu are honorable, “An Inconvenient Love” also strains the most when it gives into these attempts at seriousness, especially with how disingenuous the family drama devolves into and how it tosses discussions of abuse to the side. By relegating its politics to the background, Cayanan, Santos, and Vargas neuter the power of its depiction.
The film is at its strongest when it puts DonBelle at the center of the solar system and allows them to do their celestial dance. The animation by 4nclru becomes a way into Ayef’s mind and a playful depiction of their parallel journeys, especially in the end. But most intelligently, Vargas, Cayanan, and Santos borrow images from the history of cinematic heartbreak. From expirations dates on cans that remind them of their contracts (“Chungking Express”) and motorcycle rides that force physical proximity (“Fallen Angels”), Vargas and the entire team repurpose scenes of longing and self-destructive isolation from Wong Kar-wai films and transform them into images of freedom, joy, and companionship. The most successful of these sequences is when Ayef and Manny visit IKEA after a bad day, referencing Day 34 of “500 Days of Summer.”
IKEA approached Star Cinema and the screenwriters, serendipitously needed a scene that would depict the growing distance between the characters as they pursued their dreams. “IKEA is aspirational and a lot of people want to build homes and lives,” says creative producer Carmi Raymundo, who has also written films like “Hello, Love, Goodbye,” and “One More Chance.” “The vision of the future that the characters have is the very same thing that will keep them apart. It could be the life they want together but the futures they envision contradict.” As Ayef and Manny play house throughout the store, they allow themselves to imagine a life together for the first time, their fantasies existing without cost in this third space, the scene a masterful blend of product integration and tender, heartbreaking storytelling.
“An Inconvenient Love” can be seen as an allegory for Philippine love teams and the escapism that it can provide, the expectations thrust upon the contractual relationships, how easily these dissolve, but also the rewards of these pacts made with the fans, especially once they surpass mere material exchange. During the screening, a sea of Bubblies were present in the room, their signs glowing in the darkness just before the film. Their exaltations and side comments, even if ill-timed, were enriching in ways that made watching in a cinema ultimately necessary. Kilig should not be kept but shared and amidst a fervent fandom who are unapologetic with their emotional and vocal displays of affection, one can’t help but feel infected by this joyous reunion with their onscreen idols.
“This is the first time they’re with us here on a project that’s not just being shown digitally,” says Pangilinan, now in a black polo with a gold blazer at the afterparty. “We’re excited for our first day tomorrow. We’re going to go around many block screenings, visiting the cinemas, and thanking the ones who bought the tickets. We just wanted to create a story that would touch people in any way. It’s nice that we’re able to do that.”
In an industry filled with uncertainty, the pair, like Ayef and Manny onscreen, remain each other’s stronghold. “It’s good that I’m with him,” says Mariano, squeezing Pangilinan’s hand briefly when we talk about how acting, or being creative in any way, feels like a leap of faith. “Kapag hindi ako kampante sa ginawa, kapag hindi ako proud of what I did [sa project], he reminds me just to hold onto my faith. I’m happy I’m with someone who holds me accountable.”
It’s nearly 1 a.m. and the afterparty at IKEA is petering out. Mariano, now dressed in a hot pink power suit, sits on one of the benches, her four-inch heels splayed on the floor. I ask her what time they’ve been awake preparing and she says 6 a.m. Next to us, Pangilinan towers over Mariano and me while he looks around for whoever has her flats. The moment feels like it’s a fairytale unfolding right before your eyes. They get up, hold hands, and disappear into the crowd.
"An Inconvenient Love" is now in cinemas nationwide.