Poetry Meets Philippine Cinema

‘’100 Tula Para kay Stella’’ was definitely not on my list of films to watch for Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino. Philippine cinema is swamped with films like these—romance films meant to appeal to our sappy, melodramatic selves.

But here comes a film that uses poetry to do so, for what can be more romantic than a handwritten poem? A poem straight from the soul of the writer—his very heart and soul on paper? It may sound promising, but ultimately, writing a hundred poems isn’t enough to give the film depth and make Stella lovable, at least. You’ll wonder why anyone would ever fall for her, save for the fact that she’s gorgeous.

Pampanga Agricultural College. 2004. A 17-year-old BA Psych freshman with a speech impediment, Fidel Lansangan (JC Santos) meets Stella (Bella Padilla), a rocker chick of the same age and degree major. They become good friends, Fidel falls in love with her, but for him, Stella is way out of his league. He expresses his love for her through poetry, while Stella goes around having a different boyfriend every now and then in hopes that one of them could help her snag a recording contract. As Fidel becomes more confident after transferring schools, Stella’s life seems to spiral downwards. She chooses to go after her rockstar dreams, rather than going to school.

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After the 100th poem, will Fidel be able to express his love for Stella? Won’t he be too late?

The attempt at poetry is one of the very few things I liked about the film. As someone who writes poetry, I understand Fidel’s struggle and the evolution of his writing style. From simple lines in Tagalog, he eventually reaches his peak writing verses in English. And there’s the problem right there.

I appreciate the attempt at placing poetry at the center of this film, but is poetry in English truly the highest form of poetry? In my case, I know a lot of people, myself included, who can write in English. Writing in Filipino, however, is another story. I couldn’t write a poem in Tagalog or in my native Hiligaynon, for the life of me. For a film that should be celebrating the Filipino language, I think it did a horrible job.

Casting is an important part of filmmaking. Casting the right people makes the film a lot more realistic. Would you actually believe that Fidel and Stella are 17-year-old freshmen? This fact that they’re surrounded by actual college students makes it even more unrealistic. Yes, this is a problem in a lot of Filipino films, as well. There are lots of younger, talented actors out there, but perhaps the studios can’t do away with casting actors who ‘’sell’’.

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When it comes to characters, I find the protagonists so one-dimensional. Fidel is your typical good guy. In fact, he’s too much of a good guy that he’s so boring. He’s good-looking, he writes poetry, he ‘’sings’’, he’s sweet, he’s smart, and it seems that his only flaw is that he has a speech impediment. Stella, on the other hand, is the yin to his yang.

She’s cool by 2004 standards—well at least she tries to be. She’s rebellious, manipulative and dependent. At least, she was able to redeem herself in the end. If you’re a feminist, you’ll probably like Stella if you’d stop being a feminist for the duration of the film. For me, I don’t understand Fidel’s motivation, save for the fact that Stella was nice to him at some point. I don’t understand why you would waste 4 years of your life going after a girl who just uses and manipulates other people just so she can get what she wants. And is it that impossible for Stella to get what she wants by her own talents, without the help of any man?

Spoiler alert: As her life was falling apart, Stella was saved because a man found her and took her in. She can’t save herself and redeem herself, it seems. I like strong female characters—female characters that don’t end up as tragic figures, just so the male protagonist can look good. And that’s exactly what happened in the film. We’ve got a long way to go when it comes to writing great female characters. The film didn’t even try.

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The film’s attempt at evoking a sense of nostalgia is commendable, at the very least. There’s Friendster and you’ll also hear the names of some of your favorite OPM bands. Sadly, though, you’ll only hear a bad version of Rivermaya’s ‘’Balisong’’ again and again, which makes you wonder why Fidel was allowed to stay in the Young Performer’s Guild if all he can sing is that one song.

The cassette tapes seem a bit out of place, too. It’s 2004. Cassette tapes, really? Stella says that she isn’t into CDs because they break easily. This also shows that Stella is one of the earliest hipsters, probably in an attempt to draw in some hipster viewers. For a film that portrays Stella as a rocker chick wearing a Pink Floyd shirt and carrying around a guitar case with a plethora of rock band stickers, she doesn’t really play a lot of songs. Don’t expect the film to be a celebration of rock, or OPM, or poetry, or anything.

In the end, one of the main moral lessons of the film is this: Stay in school. Or you’ll end up like Stella. A loser who was only saved because a man found her. Sorry feminism. The film has failed you.

Martin, aka “The Earl”, has a graduate degree in Japan Studies from the University of the Philippines. He’s an Arctic Monkeys fan, knows his whiskey, and his films. For more of his reviews, visit his page at https://letterboxd.com/mat914/.

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