Do Filipinos enjoy getting into toxic relationships?

The movie “My Ex & Whys” (2017) might have the answer.

The influx of Filipino movies on Netflix had me bingeing. I finally got to watch classic movies I have never seen, and in watching them I realized that these Filipino movies worked so well because they had in them a deep connection to real Filipino values. This is obvious in “Four Sisters and a Wedding” (2013), which I watched for the first time last week. In the movie, the values of hiya (coyness/shame), pakikisama (conformity), and pakikiramdam (intuition) are unsaid plot points. Nobody has to explain it — every Filipino who watched the movie knew that this was strikingly similar to real life, because that was how real Filipino families worked.

Similarly, Filipino romantic movies that become classics are exaggerated reflections of real Filipino relationships, especially for people who grew up with them. One either avoids them or endlessly quotes them, but one cannot deny the impact it has had on how people fall in love. As those same people grow older, the stories change with them, becoming more complex: sometimes inculcating Western values, sometimes revisiting traditional Filipino values. “My Ex and Whys” (2017) is a great example of how the modern lover has impacted, and is impacted by, stagnant ideas on Filipino relationships. At first glance, the movie attempts to uplift victims of men who cheat, which is important, if “cheating” weren’t used as an umbrella term, and if Filipino relationship roles hadn’t devolved into the dangerously toxic. Obviously, spoilers ahead.

Filipino Relationship Roles

The “bad boy” drummer Gio (played by Enrique Gil) was raped by his road manager, who took advantage of him while he was drunk. In no way did the story insinuate that he was into it at all, and just because a girl answered the phone, Cali (played by Liza Soberano) immediately assumed that he was having an affair. This is the point of the entire story, because Gio spends the rest of the movie trying to win her back. The victim here is Gio, but because he is a guy, he must be the villain because, as all the girls in the movie assume, “lahat ng lalaki, manloloko” (All men are cheaters) and cannot be trusted. Did Gio even have an affair, or did he even choose to cheat? One is inclined to agree with the bashers who accosted Cali in the mall, who asked her why she was too dense and could not forgive him. But honestly, what’s there to forgive? Cali even put up traps for Gio, manipulating him to cheat on her again just so that she could have proof that all men who cheat are always men who cheat. The refrain, “once a cheater, always a cheater” is repeated throughout the movie, but did Gio really cheat? The desperate romantics in the movie answered this with, “puwede naman magbago diba?” (People can change), but was there anything to change with Gio? Throughout the entire movie, he proved over and over that he was a decent guy, in every way. He even apologized profusely. Why wasn’t it Cali who had to prove herself? What right did she have to be so assuming? She took the assumption that “all men are pigs” to ridiculous lengths, even ordering ladies to harass them and, accidentally, almost break a marriage. By the middle of the movie, Cali finally said that she would try to make amends and she was immediately forgiven without even having proved herself yet. Guys here are portrayed as being forgiving, not because they are soft, but because they are strong and feel the need to protect the girl, who was crying in public. If that were a guy, he would not be forgiven as easily — the entire movie revolved around this idea.

The only real villain here, the only one who really fits the “men are pigs” statement, is Joey Marquez’ character, Pops, who was a master gaslighter. His girl caught him holding hands with another girl — an assumption that was confirmed when we see Pops answering a call from the latter with a blatant lie (that he had to leave because he had diarrhea, not because he was chased by the former). It is mentioned that his wife left him because of this, and good for her. His sons (all except Gio) have come to worship their father — toxic masculinity being passed down. But Pops does not even suffer for it. Instead, his appearance even becomes a kind of comic relief. Pops being portrayed as funny and, oddly, charming, is a reflection of how normal it is to have an older relative be like this. The only redeeming quality of Pops is that he really cares about his sons, but this does not absolve him from the “boys will be boys” mentality.

The only real victim here, the only one who deserves to be the subject of the story, is Cali’s mother, Mommy Dolly, played by Ara Mina. Her husband left the family for a younger girl. This guy enters the house, packs his bag, and leaves without an explanation. This is a real asshole, and Dolly deserved better. Happily, she found strength in her fellow women, who never stopped reminding her that her ex-husband was an asshole, and that she should learn to build herself up and find her own way. This should’ve been the moral focus of the story: a genuine and healthy way of moving on, with people who care about your well-being. The only flaw in her story was that she kept going back to the husband, despite repeated evidence that he was never mentally capable of being in a committed relationship.

The Real Problem in Bad Relationships

Undeniably, Gil and Soberano have an electric chemistry, which explains why they are so well-loved together. The problem in the movie was not their characters as people, because we are given a glimpse of who they were and we know that, individually, they were good people, and that they were only being nasty because they were hurt. The real problem here is that they were victims of years of badly misunderstood Filipino values. These were two good people who genuinely loved each other, but who, because of their stupid friends, have come to believe that boys are gross and girls are toys. They took this idea to the immature extreme.

Gio and Cali were trapped in a tragic misreading of the dynamic of men and women in love, and the problem is not them, but the people around them. Cali was deeply affected by the trauma of her father leaving her, and so could no longer trust others. Gio was tainted by his family and friends, who oozed toxic masculinity, so everyone assumed that he was just like them. In most cases they’d be right, but as his father said, “Kahit napalibutan ka ng dilim, kaya mo pa ring tumawid sa liwanag” (Despite being surrounded by darkness, you can prove that you can still move into the light.)

The real climax of the movie is not that Cali finally forgives Gio, but that she transcends the role assigned to her by toxic Filipino society, and finally stops adding to this toxicity by “signing off” from her account. Then she says, “I’ll stop asking and just… love!” Cali’s mother sums it up well. Remember that she’s the one who suffers the most in the movie. When asked how she was so strong, Dolly answered that it wasn’t strength, but fortitude. She said, “Bakit ako nagmamahal nang paulit-ulit? Dahil gusto ko magmahal, at doon ako masaya.” (Why do I love over and over again? Because I want to love, and that makes me happy.) One is tempted to think of her a fool for being like that, but really, if one wants to love, one always risks being hurt. The thing is, relationships would be healthier — and less painful—once we let go of generalizations about others. This doesn’t mean that there won’t be people like Pops or Dolly’s ex-husband, but one should stop identifying themselves as the casualty of bad relationships, and start owning themselves.

The end is hopeful, as Cali finally learned to trust in love. Her strength came from within, and she was no longer trapped by her pain. Being trapped by her pain was being trapped in the past, and being trapped in the past meant that she was incomplete without Gio. In the end, she let go of her past, and in letting go of the past, she was free of him, and was free to finally really love him.

Likes psychoanalysis, Negronis, and the occult. Currently a grad student.

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