‘Dito At Doon’ review: nuanced rom-com captures the paradox of the pandemic

Director JP Habac’s love-in-lockdown film is bigger on the inside

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    At first blush, a film about a pair of good-looking people in their 20s who spark up a socially-distanced romance in the era of COVID seems simple enough. It’s a rom-com reflective of the times and a shoo-in for a fluffy night in. But what surprises – and delights – is how director JP Habac’s Dito At Doon (Filipino for Here And There) breathes personality and depth into an otherwise middling plot.

    Habac opens the film with tension, as Arlene “Len” Esguerra (Janine Gutierrez) gets into a heated social media spat with Carlo “Caloy” Cabahug (JC Santos) over conflicting views on community quarantine. It is March 2020 and Metro Manila has only been in lockdown for a week. Len, who’s finishing up her master’s degree in political science, thinks going out is silly and spurred by boredom. Caloy – a Cebu native stuck in Manila who makes a living as a delivery rider – begs to differ.

    Despite initially rubbing each other the wrong way, the pair yield to their obvious attraction, continuing their online dalliance as “friends”’ and later as something else.

    Don’t get us wrong, Dito At Doon has all the trappings of a fluffy romance: Len shows Caloy her collection of succulents which she dubs “Meteor Garden” – each plant pot named after characters in the Taiwanese TV drama that was a hit in Asia in the early aughts. Len and Caloy indulge in flirty but ultimately wholesome video calls and nightly e-numans (virtual drinking sessions), and at one point, Caloy busts out his guitar and sings Len a Visayan song. The laughs also roll in care of their mutual friends Mark (Victor Anastasio) and Jo (Yesh Burce).

    Yes, the leads feel like character tropes on the outset. Len is a stuck-up snob who values her opinions over others and is unable to see past her immediate comforts. Caloy, on the other hand, is an honest hard worker whose only shortcoming is his struggle to make a living.

    But Habac and scriptwriters Alexandra Gonzales and Kristin Parreño Barrameda succeed in encapsulating the paradox of the pandemic: how the external world grinds to a halt but the internal one continues to seethe and convulse.

    Janine Gutierrez with Victor Anastasio and Yesh Burce in 'Dito At Doon'
    Janine Gutierrez with Victor Anastasio and Yesh Burce. Credit: TBA Studios/Upstream

    The film manages to capture the worried stasis of quarantining indoors while moving the plot along briskly enough to hold the audience’s intrigue and nudge them into developing empathy for the flawed characters. Habac also interestingly shifts from shooting Len and Caloy as they actually are – alone talking to a glaring phone screen – to imagining them together, physically sharing the same room while bickering, laughing, and bouncing off thoughts and feelings.

    It’s satisfying to see subtle scene treatments communicate the characters’ differences. Like how Len, alone in her roomy, middle-class suburban home is draped with a warm, orange glow, while Caloy’s cramped apartment in Sampaloc is shot with starker lighting. Caloy crouches at Len’s bedside when she’s confiding in him, and Len is transported to Caloy’s apartment when it’s his turn to show vulnerability – even though they’re both sequestered in each of their bedrooms, phones in hand. It’s Habac’s way of externalising the pair’s developing intimacy.

    Dito At Doon’s scriptwriters also sneak in hot takes on the smallest topics (“Pandemic baking is for sissies, ever tried cooking pork sour broth?” blurts Len) to heavier sentiments (“If the people tasked with protecting [medical workers] did their job well, it wouldn’t end up like this, right?” she asks) and introspective ones (“There’s a difference between what you don’t want to do, what you can’t do, and what you just have to bear,” muses Caloy).

    Janine Gutierrez in ‘Dito At Doon’
    Janine Gutierrez in ‘Dito At Doon’. Credit: TBA Studios/Upstream

    Then there are the actors’ performances: Gutierrez’s cherubic charm and vulnerability rescue Len from being insufferable, while Santos grounds Caloy so that his tendency towards chivalry feels genuine. The three-person supporting cast all play their roles well, including veteran actress Lotlot De Leon, who is not just Len’s mother – she’s also Gutierrez’s real-life mum.

    Another great touch that’s highlighted towards the end of the film is Habac’s use of rousing music, most strikingly with the Ben & Ben song ‘Nakikinig Ka Ba Sa Akin’ (‘Are You Listening To Me?’). Its sombre tune and pleading lyrics are well-placed in the film’s crucial scenes. Like its soundtrack, Dito At Doon shamelessly wears its heart on its sleeve. Habac shoots the film pretty, but the rich storytelling is what charms, and gives you something to think about long after the credits stop rolling.

    Details

    • Director: JP Habac
    • Starring: Janine Gutierrez, JC Santos, Victor Anastasio, Yesh Burce, Lotlot De Leon
    • Release date: Out now until April 14 (on Upstream) and available to stream elsewhere (KTX.PH, Cinema76)
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