What exactly happened in ‘How to Die Young in Manila’?

How to Die Young in Manila

In 2020, the stars of the highly popular Filipino BL series ‘Gameboys’ Kokoy de Santos and Elijah Canlas reunited in a short titled ‘How to Die Young in Manila’.

The 11-minute film was directed by Petersen Vargas, the same director of another hit Filipino BL series ‘Hello Stranger.’ (Miguel Almendras, one of the actors in the series, also shows up in this short film). 

While fans of both shows may find excitement in this rather short reunion, ‘How to Die Young in Manila’ is actually… deep, gritty, and massively perplexing, a huge contrast to the lightheartedness of the series the director and the actors made earlier.

So what exactly happened in ‘How to Die Young in Manila’? And what does the film mean? Read on to find out.

An important note, though. ‘How to Die Young in Manila’ does not name its characters, so for the purpose of this summary, we’re using the actors’ names. Also, obligatory warning:

SPOILERS AHEAD. Yes. it may be just a short film, but still, read at your own risk.

And They Died Young…

‘How to Die Young in Manila’ starts with a boy (Elijah Canlas) in a cab. His phone rings and he talks to another boy (Kokoy de Santos), apologizing that Elijah has to take a cab just so they can meet and hook up. He also says that he’s wearing a black shirt so Elijah can easily spot him. Elijah says it’s fine, and he pulls over next to a group of street hustlers, one of whom wears a black shirt and looks at him. He assumes this is the boy he’s supposed to meet. As they walk away, he gets off the cab and follows them.

Elijah ends up in a sketchy restroom and finds three of the four boys — Kokoy is in one of the cubicles. When one of the hustlers (Miguel Almendras) looks at him, Elijah immediately hides in the closest open toilet and sits there in silence. Elijah calls the boy again, but one of the hustlers picks it up, much to his confusion. Kokoy leaves the restroom just as Elijah comes out of the cubicle, and he continues to follow them. 

As they turn a corner, he sees only three hustlers. One of them lies on the sidewalk, apparently dead. Elijah notices the body, curious and confused, but he carries on and walks after them. One of the hustlers, Miguel, stands by the wall for a cigarette break. A little awkward, Elijah also takes a cigarette out of his pocket and asks Miguel for his lighter. At this point, Miguel hits on him, but Elijah tries to step back, to which Miguel reacts rather aggressively. Kokoy suddenly appears and calls Miguel, inadvertently saving Elijah.

Surprisingly, Elijah does not seem bothered by the aggression. Just as he decides to follow them, another dead body — bloodied and naked — stops him on his track. Although caught off guard, he simply steps away from it and catches up on the two.

He walks behind them by a bridge and down the river banks, his eyes set on Kokoy. He then stops again when he notices Miguel’s dead body is covered in blood. He checks on it, a little horrified. The scene abruptly ends and cuts to Elijah in an underpass, chasing after Kokoy and finally catching up to him. They begin to talk, asking each other if they supposedly know each other. Elijah initially looks relieved and excited until Kokoy’s expression changes from curiosity to amused confusion, chuckling to himself.

Elijah receives a text message from the boy he’s supposed to meet. Kokoy, the same boy he just talked to, arrives from the other side of the underpass, smiling at him. He looks behind, and the “hustler” Kokoy slowly drops to his knees, naked in just white underwear, with two arrows pierced through his body. Elijah continues to walk toward the other Kokoy and the screen fades to white.

How to Die Young in Manila
(Image: GagaOOLala)

Lost? It’s Okay, We Got You.

You’re probably perplexed, and we won’t be surprised if you end up so baffled and unsure. The short is a little disconcerting, with all the graphic depictions of death, but it’s also confusing and puzzling. Thankfully, the director, Petersen Vargas, gave an explanation as to what he actually wanted to tell when he made ‘How to Die Young in Manila’.

In an interview with Sine Liwanag, Vargas said that the movie is “about a boy who happens to chase his desire despite what’s happening to that other side of life in Manila that he might not be aware of and is suddenly becoming aware of.” Basically, Vargas wanted to show a glimpse of queer people and their strange encounters that happen behind a city that has its own but also a violent story. And here comes the “not aware and suddenly becoming aware” part. Vargas said that he tried to build a vision of Manila where dead bodies accumulated, yet life goes on. It’s a portrayal of the fact that people, particularly the middle class who are often unaffected by the then Duterte administration’s “war on drugs,” seemed to have a “visceral reaction” to the sight of death but could do nothing, and so they simply carry on with their lives. These people knew about the death of victims as young as teenagers, but that’s pretty much about it — they just knew it. 

And that’s what Elijah’s character did in ‘How to Die Young’, he saw death, and he reacted, but he did nothing. He just carried on.

Obviously, ‘How to Die Young in Manila’ is riddled with so many allegories, but it’s this unapologetic complexity and accompanying perplexity that makes it an interesting queer short film. It explores queer sexual encounters but does not shy away from making the most out of the intense and volatile background of what happened in Philippine society, at least at the time of filming.

Watch ‘How to Die Young in Manila’ on GagaOOLala

Source: (1)

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