There are two things that define the Filipino romantic comedy: kilig and manufactured conflict. The former is the fuel that makes the engine run, the ephemeral feeling that fans of the genre will chase for the rest of their lives. The latter is a necessary detour to make the formula work; some strange contrivance that pushes the characters apart so they can get together in the end for more kilig. What is strange and ultimately so memorable about That Thing Called Tadhana is that it eschews both. Even with a premise that feels unlikely, it builds a relationship that feels so much closer to what people experience in real life.
Mace (Angelica Panganiban) has just had her heart broken. An eight-year relationship has just ended with her at an airport in Italy, being told that she has too much baggage. In walks Anthony (JM de Guzman), who decides to help her out by taking some of her stuff. Back in the Philippines, Anthony stays with her for a while, keeping her company as she nurses her broken heart over the course of an impromptu adventure that takes them to Baguio and Sagada.
And there isn’t really much more to it than that. The movie basically watches them as they sing karaoke, ride buses, share hotdogs, and look at art. Mace just doesn’t want to be home yet, or alone with her thoughts. Anthony is just willing to come along for the ride. Maybe he just doesn’t have anything better to do. Maybe he’s looking for an escape as well. It’s actually a bit unclear. What matters is that these two people have found themselves together. Together, mostly through the kind of idle conversation that occurs when two people are just getting to know each other, they explore the jagged geography of the human heart.
And there isn’t much kilig; at least not in the traditional sense. There are no big proclamations of love. There is no big symbolic gesture that encapsulates the story between the two. There is just the thrill of seeing two people slowly opening up to each other. The film defies the tyranny of movie conflict as well. The two argue at points, but there is no overwhelming drama between them. If there is an antagonist to this picture, it is their respective pasts. It is the specter of heartbreak, the memory of loves that left them crying in the middle of an airport.
In place of these traditional components, the film just holds on to the recognizable feeling being lost following a breakup; of wanting to reject the familiar. The movie compresses the journey of getting over someone, turning it into a literal journey that also happens to involve strangers feeling each other out, developing chemistry along the way. Key to all this is Angelica Panganiban, who is just amazing in this role. Panganiban is rare talent, capable in both extremes of the romantic comedy spectrum. The film takes great advantage of the actress’ skills. JM de Guzman is solid as Anthony, but really, he’s mostly called to react to Panganiban.
That Thing Called Tadhana strips romance down to its core. Our movies have become needlessly complicated. They are stories about people from different worlds, overcoming incredible odds to end up kissing each other in the end. This movie, on the other hand, is just about two people spending time with each other, slowly falling in love. It is about just needing someone to be there when you can’t bring yourself to finish the song you’re singing at karaoke. It’s about the simple, beautiful feeling of having somebody to keep the song going.