Tallinn 2022 review: About Us But Not About Us (Jun Robles Lana)

“Complex, riveting and achingly beautiful, About Us But Not About Us is a film with a remarkable grasp on the human condition and its many existential peculiarities.”

There are many signs that a director is a master of their craft, depending on the context in which a particular film takes place. One of the most intriguing ways to gauge the creativity of a filmmaker is through their ability to take an almost entirely unfurnished set, populate it with a couple of actors and have them engage in a conversation – and if the ensuing product is just as riveting as any other film, then they have truly achieved something quite rare, having grasped both the art of writing and of directing in its most bare form. Jun Robles Lana is a director whose approach has always been towards more straightforward narratives, where the focus is not on spectacle or style, but rather substance – and his most recent offering, About Us But Not About Us, is unimpeachable proof of his ability to weave together a compelling story from sparse resources, which seems to be an aesthetic and creative choice, rather than a limitation. There is always virtue in simplicity, and in a film that takes place entirely in a single location, where the set is a table and two chairs, and that is performed almost entirely by two actors who appear from the first scene to the last, it is difficult not to be impressed by the extent to which he explores certain themes with elegance and wit.

About Us But Not About Us focuses on the story of a university professor meeting one of his former students (a prospective writer seeking mentorship and guidance) for what appears to be a relatively civil and casual breakfast, only for it to take many unexpected turns. The film plumbs the emotional depths of these characters, exploring themes of loss and identity, which are beautifully woven together in this extraordinarily simple but evocative film. The latter theme is particularly notable, since the story focuses on two people who are either searching for their identity or questioning it – they are united in their shared status as gay men, but are divided by numerous other elements. They come from different generations, and they express their inner selves in varying ways – one is comfortable enough in his identity to portray it like any other objective fact, while the other conceals it, revealing it to only a few people with whom he genuinely believes he has a connection. This becomes interlaced with the broader conversation around national identity – the code-switching between English and Filipino shows characters that portray a multi-layered cultural background, which contrasts with conversations on national pride (the motif of a novel written in Filipino recurs throughout the film, and becomes its most significant narrative device in the haunting third act), and one in which they frequently question not only their skills, but their entire purpose as artists. Whatever these characters are searching for constantly eludes them, leading to this poignant examination of identity and grief.

There are broad discussions on the intersection between identity and creation – Lana frequently questions how much of ourselves we tend to place in the art we create, and the often-difficult process of reconciling how we ourselves become actors in a much broader story, one that is far more difficult to grasp. At the heart of About Us But Not About Us are two very strong performances that met the challenge of bringing these characters to life, and in the process running the gamut of emotions as they explore two individuals in stark contrast to one another, questioning not only the past, but how they have performed their identity in different forms over the years. Romnick Sarmenta and Elijah Canlas are very different actors in terms of age and approach to the characters, but the director uses that to the film’s advantage, creatively exploring the unexpectedly deep dynamic that exists between them and allowing them to ruminate on certain themes through the art of collaboration. There is something so compelling about watching two actors engage in conversation, where their dialogue begins to paint a vibrant portrait of the world which they inhabit. Lana’s impeccable writing is interpreted beautifully by both actors, each line of dialogue reflecting every insecurity, complexity and psychological detail of these characters and their past, leading to a pair of exceptional performances that stand on the edge of complete eruption as the film progresses and we learn more about these characters and their circumstances.

Despite its simplicity in execution, About Us But Not About Us is not an easy film, and it constantly challenges the audience to expand its perspective. Every moment we spend with these characters reveals more details, and while it may seem overly straightforward in how it constructs the story, there is a very distinct mood that drives this film, the atmosphere evoked by the growing tension between the characters creating a sense of looming danger, which is undercut by a deep sense of melancholy. Lana has crafted a slow and delicate film that relies upon every intricate detail, meticulously pieced together to create this vivid depiction of two men grappling with their identity in numerous ways, leading to a harrowing crescendo that betrays our initial expectation that this would be a more tender examination of the human condition. The tonal shift is unexpected, with the sense of bleak despair only growing as more facts are revealed, and the connections shared between these two characters are made more obvious to the viewer. It proves that this is not an entirely pleasant affair, but in the process it unearths many secrets that lurk beneath the surface, adding depth and complexity to a film that pays very strict attention to every detail in its active pursuit to demonstrate some of the more unsettling aspects of human relationships, as well as the art that often comes about in times of pain or trauma. Complex, riveting and achingly beautiful, About Us But Not About Us is a film with a remarkable grasp on the human condition and its many existential peculiarities.