Metro Manila Film Festival 2023: Major talents lift tale of senior love

Metro Manila Film Festival 2023: Major talents lift tale of senior love

Movie Review
When I Met You in Tokyo
Directed by Conrado Peru and Rommel Penesa
MTRCB Rating: PG

By Joseph L. Garcia, Senior Reporter

I’VE NEVER been a Vilmanian (Sharon Cuneta is my own showbiz sacred cow), but then, I’ve never seen Vilma on the big screen. Any experiences I have had of Philippine cinema’s “Star for All Seasons” were limited to late-night movies of hers shown on TV. If the lines outside the movie theater for When I Met You in Tokyo were any indication, Vilma Santos-Recto truly has a different pull.

The audience, for example, was an interesting mix: all genders, all ages, all economic brackets. Some less fashionable people were up in front, but a chic mother and daughter pair (making Vilma’s reach intergenerational) answered my question in the affirmative whether their spot was the back of the line for the Vilma movie (it was a long line, just to enter the cinema).

When I Met You in Tokyo pairs up Vilma Santos and longtime leading man Christopher de Leon, who have starred in more than 20 movies together beginning in the 1970s with Tag-ulan sa Tag-araw. Their most recent pairing was in Mano Po 3 in 2004.

This new movie shows them as Filipino migrants in Japan, of advanced age. Ms. Santos plays Azon, a hotel cleaner, while Mr. De Leon plays Joey, slightly wealthier as a hands-on farm owner. Santos is an involuntary celibate, never having married at her age; while Mr. De Leon has been betrayed by his ex-wife, played by Gina Alajar. What a cast, by the way: veterans like Ms. Alajar, Tirso Cruz III, and Lotlot de Leon (De Leon’s adopted daughter with former wife and Santos’ box office rival “Superstar” Nora Aunor) are all just side characters in this movie.

Ms. Santos makes everything feel so real: I really felt like I was watching a beloved aunt, in her gestures and her speech patterns. What’s more, despite their own advanced ages (Santos was born in 1953; De Leon was born in 1956 — you do the math), the pair can still bring a frisson of kilig to the audience: not just for the older ones, mind you, but even their younger seatmates.

And what a beautiful face, by the way: in the movie, Ms. Santos punches Mr. De Leon at their meet-cute, cries and cracks her voice, and speaks Japanese with a Filipino accent and yet still looks that good. Watching a scene with Ms. Santos talking with her mouth full and discussing rent and government dues, she still looks more beautiful than many women at least 20 years younger than her.

Romance blossoms between the pair, predictably so in this romantic comedy/drama, but in the hands of Ms. Santos and Mr. De Leon, teenybopper drivel becomes pure gold. But they’re getting older, a plot point in the movie: Santos suffers from osteoarthritis, while De Leon has a heart ailment. I begin to think that as one ages, love perhaps becomes purer, regressing from the lusts of youth and ennobled by experience. We watch the pair grow more in love each day, slowed down by age. The bucolic surroundings of the outskirts of Tokyo add to the atmosphere, as well as the Apo Hiking Society’s “When I Met You” (the movie’s theme and part-namesake, sung by De Leon in a scene, and in a duet with Santos in the credits).

(Beware: Spoilers ahead!)

With age and health as a plot point, it’s inevitable that one of them dies. Mr. De Leon succumbs to his heart ailment after a peaceful evening in their garden. Followed by a camera, Ms. Santos prepares to go to bed, beckoning her husband to come, and after a search, finds him outside slowly dying. She cries for help in Japanese, and says his name, Joey, over and over. I cried. Not just moisture that had to be patted dry with a handkerchief, but full-on crying with snot-wiping. Another actress would not have elicited this effect (except perhaps Sharon), and frankly, would have been corny. Santos, however, arrests one with a teenage star’s charm (as she had been) at the start of the movie. Backed up by skill, years of hard work, and solidified showbiz status, this charm pulls you to the very end of the film, making you feel very deeply for whoever she’s playing.

By all standards, the film should have been predictable and unexciting. In the hands of other actors, this would have been filler. In the hands of Mr. De Leon, and especially Ms. Santos, the film reaches a higher standard. Not only are we watching a necessary story about senior love, it’s another hit to add to Ms. Santos’ roster. We’ll watch a few more Vilma Santos movies to get more insight about her work, but consider me a convert.