There is a confidence in director and screenwriter Jun Lana’s ‘About Us But Not About Us’ that permeates through the whole film’s concept. I’ve heard people describe it as an exercise in “minimalist filmmaking,” of which they also state that it is done excellently. And while I agree that the film shows great craftsmanship in all aspects – direction, acting, cinematography, editing, sound and music – I have to disagree that it’s minimalist in nature. Sure, the whole movie is set in one location and primarily played out by two people having a conversation over lunch: it’s as minimalist as it can get for a full-length feature. But by going down to the bare minimum – a story of two people having a conversation – the film becomes maximalist in terms of the little details in both performance by the actors and how the plot unfolds through the dialogue.
Romnick Sarmenta plays Eric, a teacher, who joins his student for lunch at a restaurant, played by Elijah Canlas. In the midst of the pandemic (the story seems set at the easing of an ECQ and there’s hardly anyone in the restaurant), everything looks innocent enough though something just isn’t right. While Eric seems like a caring older brother or maybe even paternal towards the student but should he be? Isn’t there some boundary that’s being crossed here?
And throughout their conversation, all of this and so much more is unraveled. Yes, Eric is a 40-year old gay university instructor and was Lance’s teacher at some point. Their friendship was the cause of some disturbance at school and may or may not have had an effect on why Eric’s boyfriend for seventeen years, Marcus, may have killed himself.
This conversation and where it leads (and it goes into some dark and twisted turns) becomes a playground for both Sarmenta and Canlas to do some brilliant acting work. And, despite ‘About Us But Not About Us’ being a two-man piece, it’s really a three character movie because Marcus is such an important character in this narrative. They talk about him so much that his specter is present in their conversation. It’s so present that there are two scenes wherein Sarmenta and Canlas both take on the role of Marcus as the other recounts an encounter with him. What is most amazing about these two flashback scenes is how both Sarmenta and Canlas evoke the same character but with shades of how Eric and Lance see Marcus. There’s so much range here and so much precision. Sarmenta’s Eric is well-intentioned. He believes he is a good person and, in the process of this conversation, is brought down to his most vulnerable and fragile and his inner desires are starting to surface but Sarmenta holds it in and just keeps it right behind the eyes for us to see. Canlas, on the other hand, has to work with subtext all throughout because his Lance is not all that he seems to be.
This is when the film becomes maximalist because that camera is moving so diligently trying to capture all the little gestures and looks that shift and flow as the story unfolds. After every new revelation is brought to the surface, Eric or Lance adjust, their facial expressions betrays a sudden realisation or an opportunity for an attack – this movie is about the little details and how it makes these things fill up a movie theater screen with context – and you realise that this isn’t a friendly conversation. It’s a battleground.
Lana and company manage to tackle so many different large themes – the power dynamics between students and teachers, the relationship troubles within queer couples, the secret lives of young queer men, and the power of eloquence and the written word – but encapsulates it all within one conversation in one restaurant. He takes a small, private, intimate moment and turns it into a cinematic feast as he accentuates the smallest details and enlarges its scope through the camera. It’s a magnificent feat.
It’s an engaging 90 minutes, a thriller done completely in one conversation. Each revelation done through dialogue and its ramifications are felt by how fully the characters react to the discoveries. In a cinematic landscape that is plagued by too many big budget blockbusters, it’s so refreshing to see something so intimate and so personal turned enormous through the medium of film.