Whether the Weather is Fine, the debut feature from director Carlo Francisco Manatad, tells the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 through the eyes of Miguel (Daniel Padilla), his mother Norma (Charo Santos-Concio), and his girlfriend Andrea (Rans Rifol). Amidst the rumor of another incoming storm, the three leads must decide whether to stay in Tacloban or board a ship headed to Manila. This is all conveyed in a strange concoction of absurdism, drama, and occasional humor that constitute the characters’ existential quest for survival.
The film’s visuals are striking. It’s not an easy task to emulate the bleakness of a city ravaged by a typhoon—especially in the local industry where resources can be scarce—but the film deftly does so. It boasts an elaborate production design that rivals some of the best Philippine cinema has to offer, complemented by a synth score that provides the film with an ethereal undertone. The sets and crowd direction are formally meritable, creating a backdrop of controlled disaster. But this is also where the problem lies: the film is obsessed with control. The cinematography is almost too neat in some moments, and the sequences always feel like they’re in service of a script rather than unfolding naturally; something the film seems to excuse by wrapping everything in absurdism.
Given Manatad’s track record, this should not have been an issue. Prior to Whether, he had already made a name for himself as a capable short film director with Junilyn Has (2015), Fatima Marie Torres and the Invasion of Space Shuttle Pinas 25 (2017), and Jodilerks Dela Cruz, Employee of the Month (2018), among others, all exhibiting his uncanny ability to mix absurdist humor with effective character studies in a succinct manner. In Whether, however, the feature-length medium pushes Manatad to explore his world a little bit more than he normally would, ultimately diminishing the quality of his work. The humor is more scarce and the plot tends to meander a lot, with the initially central family-cum-romance drama taking a backseat for the film’s exploration of absurdist existentialism.
It’s frustrating because the concept works on paper. The world that the characters inhabit is absurdist in itself, with Manatad using the post-Haiyan setting only to magnify this absurdism. For the most part, this is explored through the uselessness of state bureaucracy—military officials speaking gibberish, teaching zumba lessons, and taking relief goods for themselves—and how the citizens respond to it through religious fanaticism and dog-eat-dog survivalism. But by placing the characters in an absurdist world from the get-go, the film also seals their fates in meaninglessness. Any semblance of agency is rendered useless. And try as the trifecta of Padilla, Concio, and Rifol might, their performances can only do so much to make the film’s manipulative quality tolerable.
This directorial choice backfires because the audience gets the feeling that the characters’ destinations do not really matter in the end. There may be value in existing against all odds but the film only mockingly celebrates it. Sure enough, although Miguel, Norma, and Andrea start their lives anew, there is hardly any assurance that it will be different from the lives they’re leaving behind. The awareness of looming despair is only met with acceptance. The result is an emotionally vapid film that does not actually resolve anything and is already content by having its characters live through the bizarre ordeals it sets them up for.
Manatad’s style may be unique in contemporary Philippine cinema, but his sensibilities, as of yet, are still not. It’s hard to view Whether as anything but an overlong exercise in absurdism at the expense of a tragedy from which many people still have not recovered.