The Theory of Memory and Mourning

About Us But Not About Us Film Review

(4.5 stars out of 5)

By L. S. Mendizabal

(Trigger warning: mention of suicide, abuse)

Never have I been so glad to go into a movie blind with Jun Robles Lana’s latest cinematic offering. Apart from learning from social media and the stunning film poster that About Us But Not About Us is the acclaimed writer and director’s most autobiographical work to date, I honestly had no clue what it was really about. And I wouldn’t have it any other way, which is why I will try my best to similarly not spoil the movie for anybody with this review. I am in no way teasing an awfully shocking twist ending (there isn’t), but I do feel that the complete journey of speculation, introspection and emotional release About Us walks us through is a gift that must be earned.

Truth is, if you haven’t at least once fallen in love; or lost someone to death, or life, or time; or nursed a broken heart, and a pretty banged up one too, perhaps you wouldn’t be able to appreciate the film as much. About Us is not something you watch just for the plot. It does, however, have an intriguing opening premise: Gay, middle-aged literature professor, Eric (Romnick Sarmenta), meets his younger student, Lance (Elijah Canlas), at a restaurant which the former frequented with his longtime partner and fellow professor, Marcus, whom we never see in the movie (well, sort of). We soon learn that Marcus has recently died by taking his own life and that the close friendship between Eric and Lance have sent tongues wagging at the university department. Still visibly reeling from losing Marcus, Eric is looking forward to catching up with Lance, who, meanwhile, is on a mission to find out if he was the cause of Marcus’s suicide. And since the restaurant strictly observes a 90-minute meal rule in keeping with post-pandemic protocol, Eric and Lance have only 90 minutes to talk about everything—their thoughts, feelings, memories of Marcus, and all the secrets and all the lies.

Two men at a table. And a ghost. When it comes down to it, they are whom About Us is really all about. So how does an hour and a half of dialogue between two seated characters in a single location manage to turn into a more nuanced, psychologically and emotionally gripping cinematic experience?

For starters, Lana’s writing, at its most honest, sober and philosophical, makes for a pretty robust foundation. To survive grief and depression, he reportedly wrote About Us—“part-fiction and part-confessional,” he calls it—in three straight days. And it is nothing short of a masterpiece. All the aesthetic and creative choices that make Eric, Lance and even Marcus more distinct, multidimensional characters seem deliberate yet natural. For instance, Eric’s red Volkswagen Beetle, the jingling bell and keys fastened to his belt and his palpable disgust upon discovering Lance’s pornographic Twitter alter account attest not only to his age but also to his attachment, allegiance more so, to the past. For the longest time, his source of comfort and familiarity had been Marcus, this brilliant writer (touted as “the Nick Joaquin of his generation”) but cynical, almost uncaring lover; whereas Lance, this young aspiring writer who looks to him for mentorship and guidance, and who isn’t afraid to be vulnerable with him (“I only like myself when I’m with you”) breaks the monotony of his life, gives him purpose, excites him.

Lance is forbidden waters Eric probably wouldn’t mind wading in from time to time, but he does keep his distance just enough to avoid getting fired from his teaching post. Nevertheless, the odd patriarchal role he assumes—both charitable and controlling, forcing his own beliefs and decisions on Lance—reveals his true motive, which, whatever it may be, is not totally unselfish. And neither is Lance’s. With a first name like his (Lancelot) and his silver motorcycle helmet, it’s easy to fall for the knightly exterior, winning smile and bright-eyed, innocent demeanor. Then again, Lancelot in Arthurian legend is known for his loyalty as well as treachery. Befittingly, Lance is at once fragile and callous, naïve and devious.

And yet, this story is not about good versus evil; it has more grays than black-and-whites. Lana’s manipulation of angles, blocking, and light and shadow demonstrates the characters’ moral ambiguity and gradual shift in power dynamics. He also borrows elements from theatre, notably in the scenes wherein Eric and Lance delve into their respective histories with Marcus. Despite the film’s minimal budget, Lana is able to create multilayered, conflicted, and conflicting, characters whose struggle he orchestrates with clever precision in a single, static set. Some have called About Us “a masterclass on acting.” I see it, firstly, as a masterclass on writing.

WATCH: Official “About Us But Not About Us” movie trailer

Speaking of acting, the script—constantly switching between dalliance and deceit, between English and Filipino, and peppered with references to Daft Punk, Tennessee Williams and many other literary figures—wouldn’t have been as compelling, and might’ve even sounded pretentious, if it did not have the perfect actors to play the two main roles. And perfect, indeed, they are. Sarmenta, particularly, conveys complex emotions through subtlety—a sidelong glance, a clenching of the jaw, a quiver of the lip, the cadence with which he delivers his lines. With a quiet yet commanding intensity, Eric ceases to be a character, transforming into someone I feel I know. More than a movie star, Sarmenta is a writer’s actor, a true empath, an utterly transfixing cinematic presence. Canlas, on the other hand, holds his own, exuding youthful innocence even as he seduces. Lance is the one truly in control of the conversation, luring Eric into his tricks and traps. And this is all executed by Canlas with a self-possession not many actors his age are capable of learning.

In the final act, the tension between the two characters reaches a deafening crescendo, and I’m convinced that Eric is going to kill Lance by running him over with his Beetle. But I remind myself that About Us is not that type of movie. And perhaps it’s fair to say that it’s a very specific type of movie that’s not for everyone. After all, it is essentially a 90-minute negotiation between two people haunted by memories of a man, but memories really of themselves, and above all, memories of the filmmaker himself. Just as Lana has entrusted Filipino audiences with his most beloved characters, Rene (Bwakaw), Marilou (Mga Kwentong Barbero) and Dharna (Big Night!), along with their individual journeys, he now entrusts us with his burden of pain and secrecy. Although marketed as a psychological drama/thriller—and I guarantee that it will keep you on the edge of your seat until the credits roll—About Us is, at its core, a deeply personal, philosophical story about love, which is probably life’s greatest conundrum, and its twin, loss, life’s absolute certainty.

Lana sums it up cleanly when Eric says, “As you grow older, you’ll realize that most of our memories are false. Or worse, they’re just lies we tell ourselves.” We do tend to remember our loves and losses differently from person to person, don’t we? When a relationship ends, our memories of it are hardly ever untainted by the happiness or hurt we associate with the one we shared that relationship with. Some of us can’t grapple with the possibility that our loved ones might’ve abused us, mistaking what they did for “tough love,” a “test of one’s faith” or whatever euphemism we could find to justify staying in such toxic spaces. And then, there’s also the possibility of our own abuse of our loved ones—do we take accountability for our actions, do we simply forget them or do we tell others (but mostly ourselves) lies in a desperate bid for sympathy? When artists create, how much of themselves do they put into their work? Do they present idealized versions of themselves or do they show their inner demons and traumas, endured or perpetrated?

These are just some of the questions About Us confronts in all of their perplexity, reflexivity and ugliness. With its exploration of such intellectual and emotional depths, while remaining anchored to honest self-reflection, About Us is Lana’s generous gift of healing not only to himself but to the audience as well, the sort of healing that is not necessarily pleasant, comforting or kind. And in the sense that not all may be willing to reciprocate Lana’s generosity by asking themselves the hard questions, the film really is about all of us, but not quite.About Us But Not About Us won “Best Film” at the 26th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival in Estonia in November 2022. It is one of the eight official entries to the first ever Metro Manila Summer Film Festival and will be screening in cinemas nationwide starting tomorrow, April 8. #