Warning: this review contains spoilers. Venture at your own risk.
Director Paul Soriano dives into a May-December love affair in First Love, bringing together veteran actor Aga Muhlach and A-lister Bea Alonzo in a romantic-drama set entirely in Vancouver. This is an enormous breakthrough for Star Cinema—the characters here don’t take a trip abroad, they are already abroad.
A romantic movie without chemistry between its two stars is like ordering a cheeseburger and finding that they forgot to put the cheese.
Nick (Muhlach), a 45-year-old venture capitalist with ungroomed facial hair accidentally meets 32-year-old photography enthusiast Ali (Alonzo) in a bookshop where Ali works. The two strangers bump into each other underneath the shop’s doorway and, in slo-mo fashion, they connect on a deep, romantic level that doesn’t quite reach you.
The major drawback of this movie is that Muhlach and Alonzo don’t have chemistry. Like, nada. A romantic movie without chemistry between its two stars is like ordering a cheeseburger and finding that they forgot to put the cheese.
The 13-year age difference between Nick and Ali (Muhlach and Alonzo’s real-life age gap is 18 years) is not to blame for the lack of chemistry — it’s just that they simply do not emit any onscreen spark. And when they kiss on the lips, you recoil a little.
I don’t have anything against facial hair, but it does not suit Muhlach. Perhaps Soriano wanted him to look much older, because Muhlach still has got that youthful pretty-boy face, so I guess the actor was asked to grow his facial hair, freely and wildly, complete with a goat patch, with no consideration at all for beard-growing rules. Then he was also given black-rimmed specs to go with his “older man” look.
Ali suffers from a congenital heart disease and dreams of getting a new heart and live long enough to enjoy sisig, mountain climbing, etc. Her motto in life is carpe diem, or “seize the day.” So, without hesitation, she grabs the opportunity to seize the “attractive” older man, making the first move. She chases Nick, dropping major hints that she wants him, but generally being straightforward with her romantic yearning.
Now, the young woman chasing the man, with the man resisting at first, feels like a narrative strategy to avoid the tiniest bit of Lolita vibe. It has to be the girl wooing the older man to prevent the possibility of making Muhlach’s Nick look like a creep. But this is unnecessary because Ali is already a woman in her 30s, and Nick is just in his mid-40s.
Ali is supposed to be a sassy, bold and carefree young woman, bursting with energy and joie de vivre, but Alonzo is unable to exude these traits because her performance is too subdued and gentle. She only comes off as a quiet flirt, bordering on creep.
Meanwhile, Muhlach’s Nick is too stiff and formal, and whose only personality is his attention-grabbing facial hair. He also has this cryptic family drama going on as a backstory to establish his daily guilt and explain his guardianship to a teenage boy named Simon (Pinoy Big Brother’s Edward Barber).
I have a problem with Simon. Barber is a competent actor, sure, even if his character is an unnecessary frill and more like a box-office cash-raking tactic. So, Simon enjoys discussing his upcoming school dance with Nick, urging him to be his chaperone. He keeps reminding Nick that the school dance is actually a “costume party.”
When Nick arrives at the “costume party” as an American astronaut, and Ali in a safari costume (cute, a wildlife and space explorer couple), they are surprised to walk into a masquerade ball. You gotta hate Simon for not knowing the difference between a costume party and a masquerade ball. Or maybe you can blame the script, because everyone is referring to the masquerade as a “costume party.”
That’s not the only kooky element of the script. When Ali saves a stranger’s life and brings him to the hospital, she weeps out of guilt, admitting to Nick that she’d been hoping that the man would die so she can get his heart. I didn’t know that bringing a dying man to a hospital automatically entitles you to get his heart if he dies, even if he’s a donor.
Ali also gets mad at Nick twice in this movie: when she finds out that Nick has a brain tumor and when she accidentally sees her name on Nick’s list of his heart’s matching recipients. The first reason is understandable, but the second is bizarre. Why get mad? Nick is not going to kill himself for her. He’s actually dying.
In one scene, Ali gets a phone call in the middle of the night that she’s finally getting a new heart. And for some reason, you don’t share her excitement. When she arrives at the hospital, they tell her that it’s not a match. This is ludicrous. Why contact her in the first place? As someone on the waiting list, Ali’s criteria should have been in the hospital’s computer system and she should only be contacted when the donor is a match. Blame it on hospital incompetence? Or a lazy script trying to be melodramatic?
In this movie, the rite of passage to manhood is in the form of knowing how to tie a necktie. Simon receives a demo from Nick, and when the camera pulls away, the narrow end of Simon’s tie is visible, way longer than the wide end. If Nick’s teaching anybody how to do a necktie, he should at least know how to do it properly.
In place of the usual gay best friend of the leading lady, Ali gets a gay brother (Albie Casiño) instead, who is introduced in the film while redundantly walking over a rainbow-colored crosswalk. This gay brother has no significant role — only serving as a supporter of Ali’s choice of romantic partner.
The cinematography is beautiful. Although the film exhibits the charms of Vancouver, specifically all the touristy spots like the Capilano Suspension Bridge, Science World and the Vancouver Art Gallery, it’s not a travelogue like Soriano’s 2017 film Siargao. Instead, the location serves as a mere romantic setting, filtered with a soft glow and tinged with a magical, dreamy atmosphere, tranquil and bucolic.
Soriano adds his artistic touch with surreal and poetic shots of Nick as an astronaut falling, flying, appearing in an operating room, dancing and reaching the stars. And there’s Nick’s lovely coastal home with a backyard deck over water with a generous view of the sky.
But a glorious cinematography, sophisticated film equipment and a first-world location can never redeem a very weak, disjointed script from a story that offers essentially nothing. Our local mainstream movies seem creatively impotent, severely lacking in imaginative screenplays. It’s honestly exhausting. The story of First Love feels forced, a desperate attempt to work around its casting choices. Like the Star Cinema movie culture, it invests on the stars, not really on the writing.
Soriano’s restrained romantic heart-transplant drama is devoid of emotion, so mechanical and unfeeling that you’ll leave the cinema checking if your heart is still in place.
2 out of 5 stars