‘The Panti Sisters’: a user’s guide to empathy

It’s difficult to find happy endings. This, of course, is where many movies come in, to show us options we ourselves have trouble claiming. Jun Lana’s The Panti Sisters does this, but, as is the truth of many LGBTQ’s, it’s a happy ending that doesn’t come easy.

The film pulls no punches. It is honest and cutting, sometimes to the point of pontification, but always out of necessity.

The movie depicts the lives of the three children of Don Emilio Panti (John Arcilla), all of whom are competing for a stake in the dying patriarch’s 300-million-peso-inheritance. However, this proves difficult for Don Emilio’s children (none of whom identify as cisgender or heterosexual), because to win said stake, the Panti siblings need to (a) dress “like boys”, (b) act “like boys”, and (c) give Don Emilio a biological grandson.

It’s interesting to note how each of Don Emilio’s conditions attack different parts of the concepts behind Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and Expression (SOGIE) – having a child with a woman inhibits their sexual orientation; having to act “like a boy” limits their gender identity; and having to dress “like a boy” restrains their gender expression. 

It is in these golden nuggets where the film shines best. The movie’s biggest strength is in covering its bases. The struggle of the LGBTQ community and all sectors affected by the prevailing patriarchy is a nuanced one, and The Panti Sisters makes sure to show it.

However, this is also the film’s biggest drawback.

The Panti Sisters falls short towards the end, as it crams in all its points on gender and sexuality. But while The Panti Sisters is not a subtle film, it might also be better that way.

Watching The Panti Sisters was as much about the experience inside the theater as what was seen on the screen. I found myself looking around the cinema prior to the movie, and being surprised at the audience of mostly elderly and adult males.

While this shouldn’t be conclusive towards any demographic’s prejudices, it was interesting how the bellowing laughter of the audience’s deep, masculine voices faded away as the jokes went from all possible iterations of underwear puns (get it, it’s their last name) to the truths that the film spelled out towards the end.

It’s almost as if people came in expecting a movie where queer people are used as entertainment, because to many, of course that’s how a gay movie can make 13 million pesos in its opening week.

That said, it’s understandable why the film needs to explain itself often, and to make its ideologies explicit. It’s especially plain to see this necessity now, with all the backlash towards the SOGIE Equality Bill – a bill designed for the sole purpose of protecting the LGBTQ community from the constant harassment they face. 

Put simply, the movie has to explain itself, because that is the everyday routine of the LGBTQ community; and the preachy parts of the movie exist because most times, there is no other way for Filipinos to understand.

Now, be warned – there is a happy ending in The Panti Sisters, but it isn’t one that belittles. In fact, prior to the ending, the titular characters resign themselves to a life without that happy ending at all; because the truth is that often, queer people don’t get those kinds of endings. 

However, ultimately, the movie’s most important function is that of a guide.

It is a manual to everyone: the LGBTQ community, straight allies and homophobes alike,  about how to live meaningfully in an imperfect and often bigoted world. 

Yes, happy endings are rare. But they are possible if we allow them to be.

The Panti Sisters opened as part of the Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino (PPP) 2019.

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