Review: Cross My Heart And Hope To Die (2023)

International Competition

Lights on Film

Almost one year since its world premiere in the Orizzonti Corti Competition at Venezia 80 – Mostra Internazionale d’Arte Cinematografica, Sam Manacsa’s Cross My Heart And Hope To Die is still travelling the world, and conquering international audiences. With multiple wins (Golden Star at El Gouna, Golden Coconut at Hainan Intl FF, Grand Prix in Saguenay, Best Live Action Short award at the PÖFF SHORTS in Tallinn, HonourableHonorable Mention at Vienna IndependentIndepedent Shorts, Special Jury Award at Kaohsiung Film Festival, and Best Director – Southeast Asian Short Film at Singapore Intl FF, and Best Director at ​Curta Cinema – Rio de Janeiro International Short Film Festival, to name few) and a large number of nominations, Manacsa’s smart drama about a woman who involuntarily gets dragged into a terrible situation is a story of success. Ubiquarian has finally caught up with it on the big screen in Grimstad, where it competed for the Golden Chair in the International Competition.

Mila (Jorrybell Agoto), a young, underpaid employee of a small, private company has a mysterious caller regularly asking her about her boss Danilo’s (Rexon Anyayahan) whereabouts. Strangely, he never expresses the wish for a meeting. He also never insists on speaking to Danilo. At the beginning put off by the man’s persistence, Mila starts developing a connection with him, gradually softening up. When he finally asks her out, she says yes. 

We actually do briefly see the young man at the very beginning of the film, but his face is turned away from the screen, as will also be the case at the very end. Behind the camera, careful with what’s revealed and what remains hidden through her charmingly calculated framing is Martika Ramirez-Escobar who took the international festivals by storm with her debut feature Leonor Will Never Die in 2022, bagging thirteen awards from Sundance to Sitges.

Make no mistake, we are not looking at another love story in the making. In the script she wrote for her sophomore short, Sam Manacsa addresses multiple important topics simultaneously, one of them being the exploitation of the working force, and high criminality in Manila being the other. Cross My Heart And Hope To Die also examines the lengths people without empathy are ready to go to achieve their goals, and how the lack of perspective inflicts the destiny of individuals. Mila’s life is suffocating to the point that it gets its physical manifestation.

Mila and Jen (Aje Candelaria) might not slave away in a sweatshop, but they are getting paid only half the promised salary month after month because allegedly – “the business doesn’t run well”. Considering the amount of work the two women have to deal with daily, something’s not right. Maybe it’s the lack of space or natural light that makes the atmosphere additionally pressing, but there is also the constant feeling of something much bigger cooking up. Ramirez-Escobar is making the office/ store look like a tunnel that is about to devour its staff by placing the camera outside in the dark to dive into that bright, tight space without windows from a safe distance. It’s a sheer wonder how the fully packed storage room can hold so many things on completely improvised shelves that look like they’ll collapse at any given moment. This is an adequate setting for an actual world collapsing, and the metaphor couldn’t be clearer. Some other elements of the film are too subtle to be immediately recognized as crucial story-telling components. Such are Mila’s flirts with death when all is just a concept and the sudden realization that she wouldn’t want to be the witness of someone else’s end or to be collateral damage.

Sam Manacsa is pointing out that it makes a huge difference if we are led to our goal through planned or unplanned circumstances, and how a brief moment can change one’s perspective on life forever. Smart, evenly paced and warm despite its dark streak, Cross My Heart And Hope To Die is one of the best short films of 2023, and Manacsa, whose first feature debut The Void Is Immense on Idle Hours is in development, is the name to follow closely.

Country: Philippines
Language: Tagalog
Year: 2023
Runtime: 18′
Written/ Directed by: Sam Manacsa
Executive producers: Roberto Nanacsa Jr., Antoinette Celeste Manacsa, Littlemara
Producers: Chad Cabigon, Carlo Francisco Manatad
Co-produced by: Sonny Calvento, Whammy Alcazren, Komrad
Editor: Carlo Francisco Manatad
DoP: Martika Ramirez-Escobar
Production Designer: Whammy Alcazaren
Colourist: Yov Moor
Sound Design: Ilya Selikhov, Sum-Sum Chen
Cast: Jorrybell Agoto, Aje Candelaria, Carla Zarcal, Vincent Pajara, Rexon Anyayahan, Van Sulitas
Line Producer: Noni Abao
Production Manager: Pat Pamintuan
Assistant Director: Elton Quijano
Script Continuity: Thea Panganiban
Gaffer: Sandy Cabigting
Art Director: Nimrod Sarmiento
Sound Recorder: Krysver Gomez