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Dinig Sana Kita (If I Knew What You Said)

The last time I reviewed a film that I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), I wrote that, "Maybe next year, with more money, I'll be able to watch more movies, including non-Filipino ones." Well, that was three years ago, when I saw Kubrador and Twilight Dancers. I still don't have enough money to watch more than the two Filipino films at TIFF this year (and I'm still thinking real hard about watching Independencia), but I'm very happy that I saw If I Knew What You Said at its international premiere.

I had heard good things about the film from my friends who saw it in the Philippines, and the description on the TIFF website—"When we consider independent Filipino cinema, we tend to think of hand-held cameras rattling through the slums. That's why Mike Escareal Sandejas's If I Knew What You Said is such a breath of fresh air"—reminded me that while I liked both of the previous TIFF films (one more than the other), they were actually both rather depressing, and I'm really not the type who likes depressing films =)

Anyway, what I really liked about this film was that it's different in so many ways. There is, of course, the story. "Boy meets girl" is probably the oldest story in the world (remember Adam and Eve? LOL!), but I've never seen one where the boy, Kiko (Rome Mallari), is deaf AND breakdances. The girl, Niña (Zoe Sandejas), is a rocker and a troublemaker (or is that redundant?), which is not so unusual, but when you put that together with the boy's situation, the fact that they even meet is really extraordinary. And no, they did not first set eyes on each other across a crowded concert hall. It happened at a police station. Go figure.

But more than the story, there's the treatment. It's very restrained. Unlike most Filipino dramas, this one has none of the usual sigawan-iyakan-sampalan (shouting-crying-slapping) scenes that are to the Philippines what song-and-dance numbers in Bollywood films must be to India. For instance, just when I expected Niña's father—whose face is never shown—to start slapping her around, the door closed and... fade out.

Then again, it is appropriate that silence is much more prominent in this film... except that there's more of it on the rocker's side. Kiko's scenes, in fact, are the ones that tend to have more sound in them. And by sound, I don't mean dialogue. Kiko's biggest scene—and the most affecting—had no words, but the images and the sound of music made words unnecessary. Another big scene did have words, but the images and the sound of silence were shatteringly effective in conveying the magnitude of what had occurred. That perhaps is all I should say about that scene in case you haven't seen the film =)

Then there's the use of sign language. It's not in-your-face, where one character says, "This is the sign for..." The few important signed words in the film—friend, dad, mom, sorry—were introduced so naturally that when the payoffs arrived, it did not really occur to me to think that the writer had been setting up the audience for future scenes. I found it really ironic that I thought I had an edge over the non-Tagalog speakers in the audience because I could understand the dialogue and read the English subtitles. But when entire conversations were carried out with no dialogue (sometimes with no subtitles at all), it really brought home the meaning—in more ways than one—of "actions speak louder than words."

The film also helped me understand the world of the deaf a little bit more, without feeling as if I attended a session on political correctness. Some of it was funny, like when some deaf students noisily sneaked out of their dorm, not realizing that they were lucky no one was around to hear the racket they were making. The rest of it was not funny, like people automatically assuming that just because a person is deaf that s/he can't read, write, dance, and even "hear" music. The last one was ingeniously illustrated in several ways in the film, but the most memorable for me were the scenes in which Kiko was shown nailing pieces of wood to the walls of his room. It didn't really make much sense until he started playing the music and "listened" to the vibrations it made in his wood-covered space.

Finally, I really appreciated the not-so-common perspective on the Philippines that the film shares with non-Filipinos. As I jokingly told the director, all those scenes in Baguio might just lead Canadians to think that we have winter in the Philippines. But more importantly, without denying the reality of poverty or corruption (there was a hint of bribery), the film presents the Philippines as a place where people speak English, not everyone lives in the slums or the beach, and not everything is political, violent or sexual, which is the image usually presented by Filipino films that make it to international festivals.

If I have any complaints at all, it's about the subtitles, which were not always accurate or grammatically correct even when the dialogue was already in English. I also brought this up in connection with Kubrador and Twilight Dancers and it is understandable considering the constraints the filmmakers have to work with. But in this case, the title's translation is an added problem for me. Dinig sana kita is literally the Tagalog phrase for "I wish I could hear you," and I can understand that it isn't really catchy, but why not "If I could hear you"? "If I knew what you said" seems to imply that the film is about "knowing" and "saying," but it's really more about, at least to me, "hearing."

For more information, as well as Twitter updates, see the official website and an interview with the director.

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