There’s something inherently gothic in the pairing of romance and the supernatural — that notion of the taboo, the alienation that results from the “forbiddenness” of an affair, “you and me against the world.” There’s an idealistic purity that comes out from this subgenre of love; funny how it is in darkness that the light of true love shines brightest.
It’s not that big of a surprise that throughout history, from various folk tales, various regions, various time periods, the idea of creatures falling for humans has been toyed upon. From Beauty and the Beast, Dracula and Mina Harker, Quasimodo, and engkantos and their kidnapped brides, the idea of love transcending realms has become a universal fascination. Modernizing such has become part of our generation’s zeitgeist — adding quirk, transposing such conflicts to the YA genre — to various degrees of success. Ranging from critical hits like the Korean series Goblin to misfires like the Twilight franchise, there’s a trickiness in handling these kinds of tales. Luckily, Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B falls somewhere in the favorable region of this spectrum.
AMSU23B (as it will be called from here on out) at its base form is your typical “strangers/outsiders learning to lean on each other and ultimately falling in love” kind of story…there’s just the added layer of whether she wants to love him or eat him. Kidding aside, it is the commitment in fleshing out this unique premise that makes the film work. Director Prime Cruz deserves praise for it seems that he’s been taking notes on how to not veer away this time around (yes, I’m referring to his past film Sleepless). The film doesn’t fall into the trap of having too many messages to convey that lead to an overstuffed yet, at the same time, diluted core story. Cruz sticks to his logline — a humanized take on a manananggal falling in love for the first time. Everything branches out organically from here. This bare-bones approach gives enough breathing room to explore the uniquely quirky set-up while not forsaking a tight narrative.
The uncertainties and the complications of building a relationship when you’re a mananggal are the narrative blocks that form much of the story. AMSU23B provides a mythology that is just adequate enough to serve as a foundation for these blocks to be built upon. In the movie’s universe, “manananggal-ism” (for lack of a better term) is intrinsically linked to female sexuality — the urge to feed inseparable from the manananggal’s libido. So just like the proverbial itch that needs to be scratched, it can come (pun not intended) at any time: random and without explanation or triggered by a kilig moment. (Are you beginning to see how complicated romance for a manananggal can be?) What soon follows is post-coital/post-feeding remorse not too dissimilar from the self-loathing recovering addicts experience face after a relapse.
* And while I’m on the topic of addicts, a notable beat of the film is how it addresses the current drug war’s viability as a smokescreen for Jewel’s killings — a commentary that’s all too clever.
As a rom-com, AMSU23B is competent at best. The romance is good enough to make you all giddy, there are some laughs here and there. In terms of memorability though, I’m not sure if there are any scenes that will live beyond one’s short-term memory (I’m writing now a week after viewing and the scenes I best remember are the ones that dwell on her post-feeding blues). Martin del Rosario and Ryza Cenon work well enough together to propel the story forward but not enough to leave a mark. It’s like the sweetness of the moments are produced by the scenes themselves and not by the actors’ chemistry. This is not saying that the performances or anything, in general, is bad (Ryza Cenon actually plays the role of the innocent yet tortured mananaggal Jewel pretty well), it’s just that the movie’s romance is merely serviceable.
Overall, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Ang Mananaggal sa Unit 23B as much as I did. Ironically, unlike its titular mananaggal, AMSU23B’s greatest strength is its parts don’t feel in any way disconnected. It is simple but whole. The concept of star-crossed lovers has been a formula in use since time immemorial, but Ang Mananaggal sa Unit 23B manages to deliver this story in a way that feels young and fresh. It’s the correct way to update a classic theme — through good direction, colorful neon-tinged cinematography, a hip soundtrack, and characterizations and a narrative that organically sprout from its quirky premise.