Photo from Ulan (2019), dir. Irene Villamor

(WARNING: This review contains spoilers from the film)

Romance movies have long been powerful tools in teaching audiences how to want, and how to desire. With decades full of them, it’s no wonder that they have created an aimless culture of romance-seeking among this generation.

However, romance movies cannot compare to fairy tales in terms of influencing the culture of desire through centuries. With her new movie Ulan, Director Irene Villamor offers a different take on romance in film as she conjures a whimsical fantasy with a touch of magic realism. However, despite its surreal production design and believable chemistry, Ulan is, as fairy tales are, rotten in its core.

And the token description “rotten” doesn’t indicate that the movie itself is bad. The film has inculcated the same formula that fairy tales have always infamously held – historically dark, morbid narratives later to be glossed over with unhealthy ideals of romanticism.

Ulan marries the classic Grimm fairy tales with the more modern, light-toned fantasies of today. Its primary motif is the rain, painted darkly amidst the movie’s overall light tone. However, it is worth noting that fairy tales are derived from Western culture, suggesting that Philippine folklore is starkly misrepresented in the movie.

As a country with agriculturally rich lands that have gone on to influence our own culture, our folk beliefs actually consider rainfall a blessing. However, given how typhoons annually ravage the country, the lens through which the film perceives rain is understandable.

These negative perceptions are sprinkled all over the film – Maya’s grandmother remarks on ‘ulan’ being ‘malas’ or a sign of misfortune; and one deity in the film being seen as the personification of harsh typhoons.

More so, the movie styles itself more as a Western fairy tale than a romance imbibed with magic realism, despite how it was primarily marketed. Magic realism, a culturally-bound literary genre from Latin America, is defined as the inclusion of magical elements in a very real world setting treated as natural occurrences in that universe.

While the term is vague and encompasses a wide scope of literature, its usage has been diluted to the point where it has become equated to the genre of fantasy. And this may likely be due to the attention it has recently gained in popular culture, as seen in the #ManilaEncounters trend that has recently made rounds on Twitter.

The ‘magic’ presented in Ulan is seen as part of Maya’s perceptions of her environment rather than being naturally occuring. While one could still argue that the film does have a touch of magic realism, it would be more appropriate to recognize that Ulan, in its aesthetic design and use, is first and foremost, a classic fairy tale.

This is not the first time Villamor has imbued fairy tale tropes in her movies, whether or not it was a conscious narrative choice. In “Sid&Aya: Not A Love Story”, the character of Sid (Dingdong Dantes) exemplifies his “white knight” complex, manifested by the delusion that he must ‘save’ Aya (Anne Curtis) from her economic condition.

In Ulan, it is the female lead Maya (Nadine Lustre) that has been infused with a Western fairy tale trope, consistently falsely seeing herself as a mere  “damsel”. The plot revolves not with her, but around her, making her a passive actor in her own life.

Maya is a prisoner of her own mindset, a condition that is traced to her early childhood. The colorful, fairy tale-like stories from her youth, as told by her grandmother, became rules Maya endeavored to live up to adulthood, indicating her childish naivety.

This hastens her downfall, as she is unable to register the problematic aspects of the environment surrounding her. This makes her an easy target for disrespectful, lustful  males. Her boss (Leo Martinez) talks about her being too romantic in her writings, saying, “Kulang ka kasi sa libog.”

More importantly, the presence of rain in a scene foreshadows misfortunes Maya will experience. In a rainy scene with her love interest Peter (Carlo Aquino), he impulsively kisses her in the heat of the moment, despite being a seminarian on pastoral break. Enchanted by her grandparents’ love story set in the pouring rain, Maya falsely perceives this experience as the beginning of her own romantic tale without recognizing its possible consequences.

Thus, Maya remains a child entrapped in her fantasy world. At the end of the film, we see her dancing happily with her younger self in the pouring rain. Considering how she was just informed of Peter’s death moments prior, this scene seems out of place, with joy replacing grief. However, this could be a reinforcement of the idea that Maya is forever trapped as a child in a fantasy world of her own undoing.

Ulan is less a love story than it is a tale of a naive individual caged by her own delusions. It is a cautionary tale of how one could be entrapped by the narratives they choose to uphold in their life.

This is not to say that one should not feel or act upon their desire; the film merely warns that one should be aware and critical of how they do so. Lustre’s and Aquino’s characters are written to exhibit their own set of flaws because they are only human.

They are the allegorical tikbalangs, the recurring figures of forbidden love. All they desire to do is express their love, but the heavens restrict them from doing so – and even the heavens can only do so much but pour rain.

Ulan is still screening in select cinemas around Metro Manila.

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