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Sunday, September 25, 2022

[ART & CRITIQUE] “ Start-up” makes you wish the Philippines has its own “Sandbox”

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Emil Samaniego
Emil Samaniego is Chief Content Officer and one of the founders of Politixxx Today.

As a casual viewer of Korean drama, I am very pleased to have come across Start-up, a new drama series starring Bae Suzy, Kim Seon Hon, and Nam Joo-hyuk, directed by Oh Choong-Hwan and written by Park Hye-Ryun.

At first glance, Start-up seems formulaic given how the story begins with cliché tropes like “Truck of Doom” which means a bus or truck will come out of nowhere to kill a character, “Good Samaritan” that is based on accidental act of kindness with a stranger who will become a pivotal character later on the story, “divorcing parents coupled with sibling rivalry,” and of course, the Pinoy’s favorites “revenge,” “love triangle”, ”team underdog”, and “rich boy meets poor girl” tropes. But as the story progresses, the series comes out as an easy-to-watch wholesome drama that leaves the audience satisfied with all its carefully executed twists and turns, and tear-inducing moments, except perhaps the romantic choice of the writers at the end of the story #TeamGoodBoy.

The way the series used and interlaced these usual K-drama tropes in one gigantic production only signifies that Start-up is made by a creative team’s collaborative effort and brainstorming under the auspices of a huge studio like tvN, but what sets the series apart (and other Korean dramas actually) from the usual shows we watch on Philippine TV is its execution and the myriad themes it wants to explore. In fact, I felt that Korean dramas have already perfected its art that regardless of how cliché or formulaic its main storylines are, their dramas will still come out as well-made.

In the case of Start-up, it is easy for its viewers to willingly ignore the unrealistic cliché tropes and be invested on its storytelling. And I think that is a good measure of what constitutes an effective fiction—when your reader or audience can willingly forgive the story’s cliché plot for something that captivates them into it. And that something is the fiction’s je ne sais quoi (a pleasant quality that is hard to describe).

Je ne sais quoi is that unfathomable X that causes us to desire an object (or to desire a work of art like a drama). For psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, he called this je ne sais quoi as the objet petit a or the object or fantasy that functions as the cause of desire. This mysterious object cause of desire represents the lack or void that structures our desires; it structures desire precisely because we lack it (Buk-Swienty, 2016).

For literary critic and writer Peter Brooks, a fictional text is fundamentally characterized by the “sustaining of desire through a series of detours” (which he called as metonymy) that revolves around the object cause of desire– a metaphoric object that ties or unites all the different elements of the fictional narrative all together (metaphor). In short, the je ne sais quoi of the story is more than the sum of its parts. It is something that goes beyond the plots and tropes used in the story.

In the case of Start-up, its je ne sais quoi is embodied by Sandbox- a fictional start-up incubator, or a fantasy place where ordinary people who have no social safety nets can make their start-up dreams come true without too much personal and financial risk. In the story, we see how “Sandbox” functions as the fantasy object (objet petit a) that prompts the characters to desire. At face value, the viewers might think that Sandbox is the ultimate desire of the characters; but at close reading, “Sandbox” is just a metaphor of the characters’ search for that something that will fill the void or lack in them. The void or lack in their characters that is fundamentally rooted in their personal back stories and conflicts with each other. In other words, for the characters, “Sandbox” is that elusive object that they think will fill that missing parts in their lives or give them what they think they desire.

In effect, Sandbox functions as a substitute or metaphor of the characters’ true desires which are, namely, the resolution of their family conflicts, the redemption of their characters and the blossoming of romance between the main protagonists. True enough, the story skillfully uses this metaphorical Sandbox as a backdrop or device that facilitates the resolution of the story’s conflicts, the characters’ redemption, and their romance. This ingenious use of metaphor that gives a sense of unity to the narrative fictional text and allows everything to fall into its perfect place makes Start-up an effective drama that resonates to the psyche of its audience. This is what makes “Start-up” a good piece of fiction despite its cliché tropes and plots.

“Sandbox” as the objet petit a also structures not only the story’s textual narrative but also fundamentally affects the audience who are the subject of its gaze. Everything about “Sandbox” invites the viewers to imagine, fantasize or desire. In fact, Start-up makes me wish the Philippines has its own “Sandbox.” Would it not be nice if Filipino especially women techpreneurs would be given the chance to realize their start-up visions with minimal risks?

The State of Philippine Start-up Ecosystem

According to an article published by Esquire Magazine last February, the start-up ecosystem in the Philippines currently is home to 400 start-ups, 40 venture capitalists, 35 incubators and accelerators and 120 co-working spaces. In the legal and policy front, the Philippine government has enacted R.A. No. 11337 or the Innovation Start-up Act and the Revised Corporation Code which now allows one-person corporation.

However, despite a healthy base of active start-ups and policy supports from the government, the Philippines is still lagging behind in terms of the amount of investment capital it raised which in 2019 amounted to only USD 304 million. Indonesia, in contrast, raised USD 4.07 billion of start-up investments that year.

In a panel discussion held in Singapore last year, experts cited the lack of access to capital and conservative mindset or the general aversion to risks of Filipinos as the biggest challenge of Philippine start-ups. Experts also mentioned the need for strong public and private collaboration in the start-up scene.

Personally, my friend and PXXXT’s co-founder, Jeffrey Reyes, also the CEO of Twala, a start-up that aims to revolutionize digital transactions in the country through blockchain-based e-signature technology, affirmed these challenges faced by Philippine-based start-ups. He noted that despite the availability of Filipino talents, it was really the access to investment capital that prevents Filipino start-ups from growing. Although Twala is fortunate enough to have initially raised around $240,000 of investment, majority of Philippine start-ups failed to secure the necessary seed funding to even get started.

The class and gender barriers in the Start-up industry

My friend Jeff also mentioned the existence of fundamental barriers based on class, educational and professional background as well as gender that abound the start-up industry. To begin with, he described how the start-up industry is a space with its own language and culture that is accessible only to few Filipinos. I agree with him, in fact, this is evident in the series Start-up on the lingos the characters used. The entire start-up ecosystem is a unique discursive community which uses highly technical language as filters and markers of class, educational and professional backgrounds.

Perhaps this is where the government can practically intervene; in order to bring the idea of start-up to the Filipino public, it has to first democratize its language through the adoption of appropriate language policies and capacity-building.

Jeff also related the significance of professional and educational background in securing investment. He mentioned that some Pinoy start-ups felt that the CEOs who secured international funding either graduated from MIT and any Ivy League schools or worked in Silicon Valley.

Nevertheless, the start-up industry in the Philippines remained male-dominated. In fact, in the 2020 Philippine Startup Survey by PwC, only 20 percent of the start-up founders who responded were female. Although, various initiatives have been put in place to broaden female participation in the tech start-up industry such as the Startup Pinay program by QBO Innovation Hub in partnership with Australian government program Investing in Women (IW) which aims to grow its community of female-led tech startups through funding, mentorship and exposure.

“Start-up” and “Sandbox” as nothing more than fantasies

To end, by juxtaposing the brief critical reading of Start-up to the real world situation of start-up ecosystem in the Philippines, I am highlighting the fact that, at the end of the day, Start-up remains essentially a work of fiction rooted on some fundamental fantasies centered on romance and Burkean redemption and family drama.

In other words, although the series gives us a glimpse of the realities of the start-up industry, the figure of “Sandbox” remains as an elusive utopia that fails to critically engage the real-life issues and challenges faced by entrepreneurs and start-ups not only in South Korea but more so in a developing country like the Philippines. Start-up and Sandbox remain as mere mirages of what they purport to represent in real life.

In short, while Start-up succeeds in satisfying the needs of its audience for some well-written and engaging romance and family drama, it, however, falls-short in becoming a higher work of fiction by being nothing more than a… fantasy. But hey! who says a Korean drama can save the world? Enjoy watching!

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