The Philippines is marred with an immense unemployment problem. According to 2018 data from the Philippine Statistics Authority, 21.7% of Filipinos are unemployed or underemployed. Add this to poor working conditions and an insufficient wage system and it’s no wonder a fair lot of Filipinos engage in informal jobs to make ends meet. In writer-director Keisuke Yoshida’s film adaptation of a 1990s manga series by Hideki Arai, we see just how people from industrialized countries like Japan exploit these third world conditions, resulting into a phenomenon of sex tourism, prostitution, human trafficking, and other forms of criminal acts.
Come On Irene, more than anything, is an exploration of romantic disillusionment in the time of capitalism. We follow the two lead characters, 42-year-old pachinko worker Iwao Shishido (Ken Yasuda) and family breadwinner Irene (Natileigh Sitoy) develop an artificial romance through an arranged wedding: for the former, it is his last resort to find a wife with whom he can spend the rest of his life with while for the latter, it is a necessary sacrifice to support her family that she left back in the Philippines (Iwao paid a handsome amount of P30,000 for the wedding and promised to give monthly remittances to Irene’s family). The idea of romantic love is discarded for the sake of mere carnal and financial motivations. And though Iwao and Irene can be observed to have developed feelings for each other as the film progressed, the capitalist and patriarchal foundation of their relationship remained the same.
Eventually, the film goes to even more complicated territory involving yakuzas, infidelity, and an obnoxious, control freak mother, but Yoshida never really explores human trafficking–in this writer’s opinion the film’s main conflict–to its full extent. He instead dances around the topic, even making Irene insist that she sees her marriage with Iwao as only a part of her job and that she is not a prostitute because she “hasn’t sold her soul yet.” But try as he might, no amount of sugar-coating can hide the emotional and physical abuse that Irene experienced as Iwao’s wife. She was treated as a commodity, a sexual object whose only purpose is to satisfy her husband’s pent-up sexual desires. Fortunately, the film didn’t portray her as a completely powerless character. There are times when she resists Iwao’s sexual advances and asserts her control in their relationship. Furthermore, Sitoy delivers the film’s most memorable performance, showing grit and conviction behind a woman struggling to overcome the miserable conditions she had found herself in.
Perhaps the film’s main problem lies in its insistence to draw sympathy for both Iwao and Irene, while their power relations have been clearly shown to favor the former. No matter how manipulative and abusive Iwao had become, and even though he never apologizes for his inappropriate deeds, it forces the audience to evoke pathos because he “just wants love.” By the end of the film, he had never really done anything to redeem himself or own up to his flaws and mistakes. Yoshida forces a victim narrative into him, which considering what Irene had gone through, felt severely undeserved. And perhaps this is not merely a fault in characterization but in the overall writing of the film as well. Yoshida never finds the right rhythm to tell the story. The adapted screenplay is weighed down by the structure borrowed from its source material, with most sequences spliced together in a jarring and clunky manner, resulting into an unfocused storytelling with as minimal thematic coherence as possible.
Ultimately, Come On Irene is a missed opportunity on expanding the discourse surrounding illegal interracial marriages and human trafficking. It exposes social realities but does not give them enough thematic and emotional depth to warrant a stimulating response from its viewers.
[All photos from Come On Irene/Viva Entertainment]