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REVIEW: The greatest problem with 'Ikaw Pa Rin Ang Pipiliin Ko' is not grooming

By Angel Martinez Published Feb 07, 2024 3:33 pm

Warning: This review contains spoilers from Ikaw Pa Rin Ang Pipiliin Ko.

Before anything else, let’s address the elephant in the room.

Despite the evident age gap between the two leads of Ikaw Pa Rin Ang Pipiliin Ko, VIVA’s Valentine’s Day offering does not endorse nor promote grooming. A quick Google search reveals that grooming is when someone builds a relationship or emotional connection with a child or minor with the intention of taking advantage of them. Warping the term’s meaning for the sake of online rage bait is not only inaccurate, but also harmful to those who might actually be in such situations.

Denise O’Hara’s latest directorial project takes great pains to underscore that both parties involved were consenting adults: that no one held a position of power or authority over the other when they acted upon their mutual attraction, and that the fate of the female lead was of her own choosing. 

Jas (Julia Barretto) is an aspiring musician with the opportunity of a lifetime: to sing among the prestigious Philippine Madrigal Singers. After a chance encounter with Michael (Aga Muhlach), the new conductor tasked with whipping them into shape for a make-or-break concert, she chooses to go after him. She offers the gift of her companionship to him, who just uprooted his life in the city to take shelter in Baguio. She makes a move on him, which he quickly rebuffs because of their established working relationship. And when this poses a threat to the professional dynamic of the choir, she leaves expeditiously.

Julia Barretto plays the role of Jas while Aga Muhlach portrays Michael in Ikaw Pa Rin Ang Pipiliin Ko.

“I wanted a character na babae na alam niya yung gusto niya and she’s not afraid to go after it,” O’Hara, who also wrote the script, told PhilSTAR L!fe in a Q&A session at the movie's recently concluded advance screening. “I feel like it’s a refreshing take sa mga lead nating babae: na mayroong very active sa pagpursue ng gusto niya in terms of career fulfillment and, siyempre, sa love.”

But just because this onscreen pairing passes set ethical standards doesn’t mean it was an effective decision. It seems that both actors were painfully aware of the decades between them while they were filming: the delivery of lines was awkward and stilted, the physical tension prevented a realistic portrayal of intimacy, and there was just a total absence of the kind of kilig that spells life or death for an onscreen romance. To compensate for the lack of chemistry, we have Jas pulling out all the stops, doing the most unrealistic things to fasttrack the process of falling in love–something that I still believe should be savored. The most cringe-inducing one was her justifying her crush on Michael in a professional meeting with her superiors, saying, “Eh pogi eh! Bawal ba akong magkagusto?”

Despite much backlash on social media even prior to its first screening, O’Hara stands by her casting choices, saying that such relationships happen in real life. “Sa research ko sa mga chorale groups, it’s actually very common for a conductor to fall in love with a member–siyempre maliit 'yung mundo nila and they’re always together,” she clarified. Additionally, conductors have to be a certain age to merit that distinction in their careers, so handing the role to an actor like Muhlach was for the sake of accuracy. But when you pair him with a baby-faced actress who looks young enough to be his daughter, it’s not unusual for audiences to feel confusion and even unease.

The movie takes great pains to underscore that both parties involved were consenting adults.

In the interest of giving their budding romance time to grow, the movie fails to play to their leads’ strengths. Barretto and Muhlach are memorable for their most dramatic roles: the former shines best in Antoinette Jadaone’s Love You to the Stars and Back (2017), while the latter has a critically acclaimed, award-winning filmography that needs no introduction or elaboration. But with scenes that drag on for far too long and rarely reach a satisfying conclusion, the film fails to fully capture the effects of the conflicts it introduces. The unexpected birth of Michael’s child with his ex-wife leaves him split between two ladies in two cities, causing Jas to confront her fear of abandonment head-on. Focusing on these more would have provided room for relatability, as well as some satisfying character development. But instead, we are subjected to many sickeningly sweet scenes.

If anything, Ikaw Pa Rin Ang Pipiliin Ko is good for sparking discourse and clarifying misconceptions. Truly, a huge age gap for two lead stars doesn’t automatically mean manipulation or abuse. But to the dismay of expectant audiences, it also doesn’t automatically mean palpable chemistry or a pleasurable viewing experience.

Ikaw Pa Rin Ang Pipiliin Ko opens in Philippine cinemas on Feb. 7. Watch the trailer below.