Portraying poverty and patriarchy: the triumph and downfall of VKJ

Text and art by Andrea Jobelle Adan

From the beginning, “Vince & Kath & James” (VKJ) has been hard-pressed to defend its place among the inventive, the progressive, the worthy. What was overtly fresh — if the opposite meant overused plot lines and profit-oriented delivery — with the other films, VKJ had to prove upon screening.

In this historic Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) lineup, VKJ had to shout why, in all its seeming rom-com simplicity, it belonged.

Director Theodore Boborol’s entry focused on the three teenagers in the title, their love triangle, and the love they receive or the lack thereof within their families.

It layers everything patiently, scene after carefully crafted scene. Often, after an emotionally-demanding segment, they would have the characters lighten the mood — a coping mechanism all too familiar to Filipinos.

And in its familiarity, VKJ triumphed. Though in a college setting, watchers need not be of that age to relate to the pangs of infatuation and the whirlwind of confusion that comes with it.

There was an awareness of romance and its subtleties, of the fine line between endearing and nauseating. Vince (Joshua Garcia) stares at Julia Barretto’s Kath a few seconds longer, his gaze silent yet meaningful. Overcome with delight, Kath jumps and cheers, looking nothing but silly after a crush texts.

No grand proclamations, no trumpets down the halls. It was real in its simplicity. The film’s other elements — the musical scoring, the acting, the set — exuded that as well.

But pure romance, no matter how tactful, would not have been enough for VKJ to stand tall with the others.

What will always remain a mystery to those who have not and would not watch is this: “Vince & Kath & James” is not your regular cheeky teen film.

Vince does more than breathe in between teasing and pursuing Kath. At times, he shouts, distressed over his powerlessness against his wealthier cousin, James. More often, Vince stutters, blinking and submissive, in a house which is clearly not his with a family he must take care to please.

The film sends it first in whispers, teasing the audience: will they address it? Will it be another film that merely acknowledged a social reality?

Amid the hearts and cupids, they weave into the film a scene where Vince and James are accused of plagiarism due to the latter’s laziness. Vince, whose educational record has not been tainted thus far, is told to take the fall.

The film takes it from whisper to speech.

Injustice, he says, but how could he refuse the demands of a cousin who would pass him designer shoes and phones as if it were nothing. How could he let down the family that sheltered him, fed him, when his own mother would not?

Vince was not welcome in his own home; how dare he then say no to the family that called him their own?

Here, the film finally shouts. Vince screams, “hanggang kailan ba ako magbabayad ng utang na loob?” echoing the agony of the lower class forced to submit to the powerful and wealthy.

The conflict is resolved the way it would have been resolved in reality: Vince is ready to fake taking part in the plagiarism but James finally admits it was all his own doing.

Vince had been spared; he did not fight it save for his cries of anger. Unsatisfying, yes, but realistic. No matter the emotional rollercoaster, the class divide does not disappear overnight, and definitely not through one college student’s realization alone. With this, the power to turn the tables is still held by the elite and both boys’ decisions reinforced this.

Discreetly though, the film offers consolation, even solution.

Throughout the overlapping arcs, another theme is present: love out loud. When Vince is made to confront how he has loved Kath silently, the film displays the pitfalls of a love conservative, painfully compromising and indirect. When Vince’s mother apologizes for allowing Vince to live with wealthier relatives because her husband despised him, the film shows there is place for a love that fights.

“Vince & Kath & James” would have made a simple yet worthy romantic movie in touch with reality. Yet it put all that to waste in its treatment of the main women in the film.

Vince’s mom is submissive to a husband who, for reasons not elaborated, despises Vince.

Kath’s mom is portrayed as out of her wits after her husband left their family for another woman abroad. One day, the dad shows up out of nowhere and, philandering obviously put aside, Kath’s mom is brimming with joy.

Kath, in all her mechanical engineer wonder, was made an object of Vince’s fantasies, inevitably falling prey to the male gaze. As she works in a talyer that should be anything but glamorous, the camera pans and zooms in on her thighs, on the curve of her waist, on the swell of her chest — all in painful slow motion.

Moreover, James’ attempted rape of Kath is excused because of his jealousy, a mere character flaw. The film does not address this, and no character is realistically offended. Immediately after, Kath addresses James’ jealousy and apologizes and in this, the film tells the audience which offense mattered more.

This aspect of the film cannot escape criticism by saying it is a reflection of the patriarchy currently in state. This sexism is not so much exposing but promoting a culture that is already harmful without the film’s tasteless treatment in tow. Exposing had been achieved by the theme on class divide, but despite its merits, this simply cannot be overlooked.

In this historic MMFF lineup, “Vince & Kath & James” shouted why it deserved to be there but choked on an aspect of its delivery and fell short.

Author: TNP

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