Philippine cinema suffers from a lot of the same ailments that plague Philippine television. That is, the same old formulaic stories that have been done over and over for years continue to get churned out with no signs of anything changing anytime soon.
Which is why it’s hard not to marvel at a series or film that manages to offer something even the slightest bit different or fresh from the norm.
English Only, Please is one of those refreshing outliers.
The Derek Ramsay-Jennylyn Mercado starrer debuted at the 2014 Metro Manila Film Festival to great reviews before winning several unexpected awards including Best Actor and Best Actress. Positive word of mouth helped the film become one of the top grossers, which is a major feat considering it lacked the Star Cinema brand name or big network push the usual top grossers enjoy.
And the awards it received for its lead stars as well as 2nd Best Picture signal an apparent change of the way things are done at the Film Festival. In years past, the major awards were usually showered upon the highest grossing films, regardless of actual quality. Along with awards for directing, writing and editing, for a film like English Only, Please to have garnered so much positive attention and success for it to actually get American theatre runs, also usually reserved for Star Cinema movies, is a big accomplishment.
Actually seeing the film, it is no wonder why it has been able to draw such praise. English Only, Please is a thoroughly enjoyable romantic comedy that takes the usual formula and injects fresh charm and sharp wit. It is a movie that doesn’t break any new ground, but presents a legitimately engaging story without feeling tired or derivative.
The biggest reason for its overall creative success may be Jennylyn Mercado’s performance as Tere, the feisty tutor hired by Derek Ramsay’s Julian to translate an angry letter to he hopes to deliver to his ex-girlfriend in Filipino.
Powered by a fast-paced and smart screenplay, Jennylyn manages to carry much of the movie herself with much help by the great chemistry she shares with Derek. Tere is a departure from Jennylyn’s most recent television characters including her title role in last year’s disappointing Rhodora X and currently a widow on Second Chances. Here, Jennylyn gets to be fun, bright and bubbly. She is irresistibly charming in a way she might not have been able to show recently or even ever.
Similarly, Derek Ramsay is able to stretch his wings as well. When he’s not hosting The Amazing Race Philippines and instead of his usual (both film and television) typecasting as the prized shirtless sex object being fought over by two women, here Derek gets to play a more likeable and relatively deeper character. Julian is heartbroken over his ex-girlfriend and some past issues. But seeing him (and Tere) able to move on from the past is done in a way that feels organic. That’s as opposed to the usual loveteam meet-cutes and pa-tweetums set-ups that plague most mainstream Filipino romantic comedies.
The film opens with New York-based Julian hiring Tere over Skype before flying to the Philippines to get personal one-on-one sessions to learn how to deliver his scathing letter as a speech to his ex-girlfriend who is now living in the country. While Julian is slow to reveal the details of that relationship, we learn plenty about Tere’s own life.
First we see Tere as a smart English and Filipino tutor to Koreans and a Filipina hoping to impress her internet boyfriend. Then we see her as the “tanga” or foolish-for-love Tere who allows herself to be used for sex and money by her no-good boyfriend Rico (played as perfectly douchey by Kean Cipriano). That’s not as dark as it sounds, but it does help establish Tere as someone who seems desperately in need of romantic love. That helps make the eventual connection she forges with Julian all the more meaningful.
The two grow closer with every tutoring session and they finally are able to open up to each other. Their relationship develops quite naturally and with many funny lines and moments thrown in, it is a brisk journey right from the start.
The final act does focus on one big often used plot point to try and create tension and drama (the only time in the entire movie). But it does provide for a very effective final sequence of scenes that, with the greater chunk of the film, make for a fully satisfying ending. And best of all, the film doesn’t treat its audience like they are small-minded zombies.
No doubt what may have caught the audience’s attention most in the trailers and teasers were Derek’s highly accented, slang Tagalog or Jennylyn’s biting Tagalog translation of the original letter. But the movie contains many more moments just as funny and witty, including several running threads that all surprisingly come together in the end. And it is all delivered with great conviction by its cast.
While this is the only Metro Manila Film Festival entry I’ve seen, I can definitely see why Derek and (especially) Jennylyn could’ve even been considered, let alone win the Best Actor trophies for the festival. Their performances were engaging, charming and very natural. Both were able to handle both the bigger, funny moments as well as the quieter, more subdued scenes. And those qualities alone are able to propel them over performances from loud, slapstick comedies or rehashed horror films.
The film has a relatively small cast, allowing for both Derek and Jennylyn to take center stage. And both certainly rise to the occasion. The rest of the cast, especially Kean Cipriano, young Isabel Frial (as Tere’s wiser then her years goddaughter) and the talented Cai Cortez (as Tere’s best friend and also “tanga” for love Mallows), round out what is a small, but fun ensemble.
It’s easy and sad to side-eye the current low-brow offerings in Philippine entertainment. So when an appealing, fun, smart and enjoyable movie like English Only, Please presents a charming and refreshing option, it deserves to be recognized.