‘Once a Princess' Review: Gossamer grit

Once a Princess, the Laurice Guillen-directed film inspired by Angel Bautista’s pocketbook romance of the same title, is quite a strange creature. At first glance, it appears to be what it is being sold as, a swoony romance between mismatched lovers separated by cruel circumstance.

The further the film progresses, however, it shows some signs of wanting to break off the mold, of being more than the glossy adaptation it was originally conceived to be.

Erin (Erich Gonzales) is the prettiest, richest and most popular girl on campus. Leonard (Enchong Dee), the studious new student, is just one of the school’s many wallflowers. As with most standard love stories, they meet and fall in love, before being separated by fate, which in this case is the financial ruin of Erin’s family which forces her to go steady with wealthy Damian (JC de Vera), breaking Leonard’s heart in the process.

Several years later, their roles are reversed. Erin, despite being married to Damian, is struggling financially. In need of a job to support herself and Damian, who has been rendered inept by a motorcycle accident, Erin is forced to become the secretary of Leonard, now a top executive in a technology company, who has been rendered cold and cruel by the heartbreak from a few years back.

Guillen, who has directed some of the country’s most well-regarded films like Salome (1981) and Init sa Magdamag (1983), knows that the material is beneath her stature. After all, Bautista’s story is run-of-the-mill and the romance it offers is hardly extraordinary. Interestingly though, hidden between the pocketbook’s pages is a theme worth exploring, that of a woman suffering at the hands of the men in her life.

The love story is just a frame for the grit that Guillen portrays with more resounding enthusiasm. Once a Princess comes alive when Erin is in agony. In the name of love, she allows herself to be victimized. 

Gonzales effectively portrays Erin with such affecting fragility, efficiently bringing across the message that the film is not just about her character’s amorous whims but also about her anguish. This is the dark side that tempers the gloss.

Moreover, by enunciating female suffering within the framework of escapist cinema, Guillen brings to the fore the lopsided gender politics existing in most Filipino romances that is more often than not left ignored.

One only needs to take a look at most of the book-based films of this year to acknowledge this. From Andoy Ranay’s Diary ng Panget to Cathy Garcia-Molina’s She’s Dating the Gangster, men have always been depicted to be these demigods women should fawn over, serve and be shamed for. Love is just a tool used to numb the pain. 

 

This exploration is of course still restrained. Once a Princess is still a product to be consumed by the masses who are all too eager to be dished a happy resolution in exchange for their hard-earned money. The film therefore cannot be too dark and grim. Its portrayals of female suffering, mostly scenes of Erin buckling under Leonard’s sadistic work instructions or Damian’s uselessness, cannot be too realistic or too shocking. It must be acceptable within the limits of the mainstream.

It is this limitation that hinders Once a Princess from being truly beyond its source material. It is still popcorn entertainment, notwithstanding its attempts to be bleaker. This isn’t Guillen’s fault. She has done all that she can do, given the fact that she is constrained by commercial demands. An attempt at elevation is therefore already laudable.  – Rappler.com

Francis Joseph Cruz litigates for a living and writes about cinema for fun. The first Filipino movie he saw in the theaters was Carlo J. Caparas’ 'Tirad Pass.' Since then, he’s been on a mission to find better memories with Philippine cinema.