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If I Knew What You Said: Teen romance as afternoon soap opera

A scene from If I Knew What You Said.


1 out of 4 stars


If I Knew What You Said

  • Starring Romalito Mallari and Zoe Sandejas
  • Directed, co-written and produced by Mike Sandejas
  • Classification: G

If earnestness and sensitivity were the primary virtues by which a movie should be judged, then If I Knew What You Said would rate four stars and be a shoo-in for an Oscar nod as best foreign film. Fortunately (or unfortunately, if you deem earnestness and sensitivity paramount), a film must meet other criteria to be acknowledged a success. Sadly, If I Knew What You Said fails these yardsticks. In its fashion, it's a wonderful demonstration of the Oscar Wilde maxim: "All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling."

Clearly If I Knew What You Said, which played last year's Toronto International Film Festival, is heartfelt and sincere, and in not liking it, a viewer can't help but feel churlish; it's as if you've snatched a stick of cotton candy from a baby or pointed Oliver Twist in the direction of the nearest poorhouse. Still, sentiment shouldn't cloud or substitute for good judgment; the truth is If I Knew What You Said rarely rises above what it is: a low-budget indie Filipino melodrama with subtitles, better suited as an afternoon soap opera than a big-screen experience.

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The second feature from Mike Sandejas, it's the story of two music-loving Filipino youths, the deaf orphan Kiko (Romalito Mallari), who works as an aide at a camp for both hearing and deaf students but whose real passion is dance, and Nina (Zoe Sandejas, the director's daughter), the rebellious, guitar-playing daughter of an affluent, restrictive Manila couple. Their paths cross when Nina is sent to the camp in the hope, as her mother says, that "exposure to disabled kids will make you realize how lucky you are."

Of course, Nina and Kiko don't get along at first - a situation exacerbated by their inability to communicate - but, predictably, various adventures ensue to spark a recognition of their common humanity and to bring them close. We gradually learn that Kiko desperately wants to find the parents, especially the mother, who abandoned him as a baby while Nina is suffering hearing loss, brought on, it seems, by abuse from her father and her own bad habits.

In If I Knew's promotional literature, much is made of the fact that Nina and Kiko are, in real life, the characters they're playing and that the "real" Romalito Mallari actually does see the film as "his message in a bottle" - a way to connect, at last, with his birth parents out there in the world, somewhere. While this is all very poignant, none of it translates, finally, into involving cinema. Indeed, If I Knew What You Said is filmmaking driven more by agenda than credible character development, say, or genuine suspense, and whatever feelings it prompts are elicited less by the movie itself than by the predispositions of the viewer. How could it be otherwise? The pace is plodding, the acting pedestrian, the dialogue wooden, the cinematography unimaginative, the ending pure hokum. If I Knew What You Said seems so determined to avoid what might be called "Third World clichés" - teeming masses, slums, poverty, crime, violence - that, finally, it's too bloodless, dainty even, for its own good.

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