We’ve been thrown in for a loop. Our sense of what’s real and what’s unreal have been warped past the point of discernment. Strip away access to human interactions IRL, and we devolve to creatures of languish, an actual term bred from the Twilight Zone-esque limbo we’ve all found ourselves in—neither bothered nor unconcerned, neither fine nor miserable. And it very much feels like purgatory, an apt prelude to what certifiably feels like the 11th Circle of Hell. Or as Abed calls it, the Darkest Timeline.
That, at least to this writer, is what this pandemic has felt like. And that feeling, mostly, is encapsulated by Now Streaming, a new original series for newcomer streaming service, Cignal Play. Enlisting the help of Epic Media’s roster of filmmakers, the anthology series tells six stories set a few frightful months into the quarantine orders in the Philippines.
Each story is different. One is about a scam-from-the-Netherworlds, another is a scathing commentary on online fame. There’s a story about isolation, or, actually, every story is about isolation. There’s one about an engaged couple, whose issues get magnified while trapped in the same house due to lockdown. These stories vary in tone and style, but they all capture the fear and anxieties of living through a global pandemic.
I’m writing this review with Geoff’s help, whose thoughts on Kenneth Dagatan’s As You Can See and Rae Red’s Year of the Rat are clipped here. The final rating is an average of our scores on each episode.
Destroy Everything You Touch
The sextet of characters in Destroy Everything You Touch doesn’t talk much about the administration’s objectively poor COVID-19 response. But weirdly, Duterte’s words echoed in my mind as I watched Dodo Dayao’s entry. “Obosen ko kayo,” Duterte famously wailed, telling ‘narco politikos’ that they are to suffer the same fate as past casualties of his War on Drugs (including innocent civilians).
The reason for that may be borne out of the fact that, like the characters in this entry, we are overcome with threats lurking from every corner. Will we die in the crossfire of Duterte’s Drug War, in the wake of a widespread virus, or by the tricks of our very own minds? Who knows. But just the same, we all feel helpless that one way or another, we might fizz out.
Presented as a screen-recorded horror much in the vein of Host and Unfriended, Dayao’s entry feels less committed to the horror and the mystery. You expect to see the characters’ cameras dwindle down from six to barely a couple, with each caller fated coming down to their grisly demise. That’s just part of how things work in this subgenre. What it does well, though, is presenting the collective distraught brought by this unseen terror (in this case a global pandemic), from feeling like the walls close in on you to becoming plagued with seemingly unrelated nightmares.
Year Of The Rat
Working in advertising gives me a closer look at how the pandemic changed our behaviors both IRL and online. With the (poorly) enforced stay-at-home orders and the exponential popularity of TikTok during the lockdown came the rise of a new breed of influencers. Many of these influencers have sprouted in such a short span of time, making competing for their followers’ attention tougher than ever. We’re lucky if their gravest offense was sharing TMI for likes. Because the status quo, it seems, is having to be horrible human beings to stay relevant.
In Rae Red’s Year of the Rat, an influencer taking on the online moniker, “TheAndyFace” (Thea Marabut), goes to dangerous lengths to keep her followers engaged. Andy doesn’t give a fuck about haters; in fact, she indulges them, owning her branding of being a “tanga” (stupid) creator. I’m not sure if it’s intentional but Andy reminds me of the “rats” of real-life Philippine Twitter – those who dwell and thrive in toxic threads and “bardagulans”.
That makes Andy’s character probably the closest, compared to those in this anthology, in depicting how influencers really interact with their audience. Thea Marabut’s performance accurately mirrors every problematic influencer we’ve had to shut down in our timelines. Marabut’s Andy reels me in despite the fact that I’ve probably already blocked her if she were a real person.
Rae Red has precise control over the story’s pacing, taking her story from being quirky to bizarre to downright terrifying. We’re taken through a whirlwind of events that ultimately leads to an ending that literally had me at the edge of my seat, saying what-the-fuck. She does this while subtly contextualizing the locked down setting, acknowledging the cruel effects of being quarantined for months on end, including our amplified thirst for external validation.
Bradley Liew’s Eater, like Rae Red’s entry, is about an influencer. Played by JC Santos, the eponymous mukbang streamer is adored by many. Why that is—to me, personally—is a mystery. Santos plays Pogiking with a level of cringe of an ‘08 YouTuber, and it’s hard to buy that thousands of people actually tune in to his streams. But I guess stranger monsters have been bred from online stardom. Remember Darryl Yap? Buknoy? Tulfo?
Liew’s presentation is intriguing and perverse, in that we see everything unfold from the perspective of a stalker, kind of like Branden Kramer’s Ratter. Liew hits on some interesting points about parasocial relationships, as well as the power imbalance between an influencer and a fan, and I wish that his film had leaned into those more. It treads Black Mirror territory, too, where our interactions are motivated in advancing our status and earning more social currency (read: likes, views, and followers). However, the ending depletes its interesting points in favor of violence that ultimately doesn’t give that much catharsis.
First Of May
Things have gone sour for Mon and Ida. The lockdown restrictions couldn’t help obscure the cracks of their relationship. They live in the same house, but couldn’t feel further apart.
The filmmaking accentuates it well. Sitting in different rooms, they perch over their phones, each talking to someone else. Siege Ledesma has them literally boxed inside a squarish aspect ratio and further plays up their isolation through negative space. The performances empower these flourishes; Sid Lucero is visibly spent as Mon, and Annicka Dolonius’ Ida feels, ultimately, stifled by their circumstance. The writing, quite simply, is great. In lesser hands, using a pandemic as a backdrop to a romance story would come out gimmicky, but here the pandemic is presented as a mere fact of life, one that greatly affects its characters’ decisions (or rather indecisions).
And it’s hard not to resonate with that. The past year has pushed us inches before our breaking point. The uncertainties of a life beyond COVID-19 have come over many of us, as it had Mon and Ida here in First of May. And it’s a feeling that still cuts, one that Ledesma captures here greatly. It’s probably my favorite entry of the whole series.
From My Window
BL stories are interesting. Both adoration for and contention against it are storied, with its fans championing the needed visibility it provides and its detractors disapproving of its typically wacky and wide-eyed depiction of gay romance. It’s kind of tough to navigate. On one hand, BL stories are typically lighthearted rom-coms (a welcome escape, especially considering these times), and on the other, there’s only so much that its creators can do to push it past its bubbly form.
If anything, From My Window is an attempt at that. Though much of the pa-pogi and pa-kilig are still there (and so does the occasional cringe), writer-director Carlo Catu tries to explore something beyond an online cute-meet. Here, interestingly, the main character (Christian Bables) peers through a scope and surveys his hunky neighbor. It’s a painfully analog way of spotting thirst traps in social media, a perpetually open window in our daily lives. And that, for what it’s worth, sets it apart from previous BL stories. There’s space for its characters to be lustful, to be somewhat removed from the cutesy vibe of BL, and to be so flawed that it’s no longer cute. Sadly, it doesn’t run through with this fully and ultimately surrenders to the uwu-flirty antics of the subgenre, if we can even call it that.
As You Can See
Online shopping has been a constant in our lives since the pandemic started. With it comes stories of bogus buyers, scammers, and fake profiles, so it was really only a matter of time before someone makes a techno-horror piece out of it. In Kenneth Dagatan’s As You Can See, we follow a young woman named Patricia (Beauty Gonzales) who’s forced to quarantine when a resident of the building she lives in tests positive for the coronavirus. Chatting online with her cousin (Chai Fonacier) can only do so much to alleviate her anguish (or as New York Times puts it, “languish”), and it doesn’t help that her boyfriend is seemingly indifferent to what she’s going through. Like many of us, Patricia turns to online shopping as a distraction. Little did she know there’s another evil lurking online much like the virus outside—spreading and taking the people it touches.
As I watch As You Can See, I find myself inadvertently glancing at the pile of boxes and packages. It’s terrifying because the story hits close to home, so authentic in depicting the mental stress and paranoia that several months of lockdown brings—even something as mundane as a box evokes such real terror. Patricia’s claustrophobic room resembles my own studio unit, and the painstaking routine that she religiously follows every time she gets a delivery reminds me of my own OC-ness whenever something gets delivered to my home. The loneliness and longing are also there, so I understand why each add-to-cart feels like a momentary high, a cheaper alternative to therapy.
The film pays close attention to the nuances of the interaction between a seller and a buyer during an online transaction and uses it to build up the dread and horror. Who knew that a closed-in shot of the typing indicator in a chatbox could create so much tension in a scene? Using these smart flourishes, Dagatan takes us on a gradual and quiet descent into techno-paranoia. Ultimately, we accept the depressing conclusion that finding hope, even online, is moot. For there is evil infecting people on the internet, much like the way that the coronavirus is spreading in real life.