Empty By Design (Philippines/USA, 2019) [CAAMFest 2019]

Empty By Design, the directorial debut of writer-producer Andrea A. Walter, is a tale of approximation between familiarity and difference. It tells the familiar story of coming home to a foreign land, but its two main characters occupy different contexts. The tempo of Walter’s direction seems to reflect these tugging feelings, of familiarity and difference. What comes with these feelings, however, does not seem to work in her film’s favor, despite directly evoking its main theme.

The film first focuses on Sam (Rhian Ramos), a freelance writer who goes home from London to the Philippines after the death of her parents. All the while she’s home, her sister, Patricia (Carla Humphries), is asking her to stay around and go to a graduate school locally instead of in London. The other half of the film focuses on Eric (Osric Chau), a stunt double from the United States, who, in between his shooting days, checks out the places he frequented with his mother back when he was young in Manila. But not being able to communicate (he does not know any Tagalog) makes the places unfamiliar to him. From time to time, Sam and Eric meet to gauge their experiences as foreigners in their homeland.

A lot of Sam’s screen time depicts her as being bored and privileged. Rather, bored with privilege. Sitting on the terrace with her feet up, for example. Or looking at their dog walking about their garden. Or sorting her things while talking to Siri. Or walking around malls. Or swimming on their backyard pool. Eric’s character is handled with more balance, and it his story that prompts empathy and interest.

Weirdly enough, through the long sequences of Sam being bored, we get to be more familiar with her than with Eric. Of the two characters, Sam bears the heavier conflict: despite her willingness to come home and stay indefinitely, it is costing her time with her current partner. But the conflict do not seem to go well with the long sequences of her boredom, which makes her look more comfortable than troubled. However, Empty by Design does not unfold in such a way that Sam’s boredom and anger can be bridged. They are kept at an unresolvable distance.

Eric, on the other hand, lives his daily life and is excited to walk through the places familiar with him. Eric is portrayed by Chau with a highly convincing look of familiarity and curiosity in the places he looks at. He’s actually more convincingly Filipino than Ramos in his performance which is why Eric’s conflict of not being able to communicate unfolds almost organically. A lot of these cases with him are highlighted consistently until Eric reaches his target point, his family home, where his communication issues get resolved bit by bit.

This is where I had problems looking at a film as someone who’s familiar with the phenomenon. The parts of the film with Sam seem too alien and generically western that it can be mistaken for anything but a Filipino experience, and this is despite Sam being portrayed by an actual Filipino actress. While with Eric, it seems that everything flows easily since his struggle are right in front of us in an audio-visual manner.

Does it come from the characters’ essence? A freelance writer may have had more free time than a stunt-double on call. Not to mention, the freelance writer necessarily works alone while the stunt-double work with others, hence the more dynamic experience had here by the latter. It seems that Sam embodies the film’s title more, without the “design.” Her character is just plain empty while the film’s theme of foreignness is more successfully embodied by the scenes focusing on Eric.

This distance between what the film looks and what the film want to say continues even after the two seemingly separate characters meet. What we are offered on their meet-ups, are further explication of themselves, of who they assume they really are. There are four instances in the film wherein they interact. However, these interactions do not seem to lead towards any form of connection, since both are more interested on when it is their turn to talk. There’s no attempt at romantic tension. They just talk, like strangers. Then go home, even more stranger to each other.

Empty by Design provides an interesting approach to character study, but unfortunately, it does not offer any sort of development. The film leaves off where it started, without any sort of change in sight. A perfect loop, rather a closed-circle. Or a palindrome, wherein it’s the same whether you read it from start to finish or finish to last. It is not its design that is empty, as it’s form is full and rich, but rather its content.

Empty by Design was shown at CAAMFest 2019 on May 12 and 14 2019.

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