- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
A familiar tale about learning to embrace life again is revitalized by cultural specificity in Islands, Martin Edralin’s first film. Vying in SXSW’s narrative feature competition this year, the bilingual drama opens with a Filipino-Canadian family of three kneeling in church in front of a row of red votive candles. Middle-aged Joshua (Rogelio Balagtas), a bachelor on the verge of his 50th birthday, looks bored as his mother, Alma (Vangie Alcasid), and his father, Reynaldo (Esteban Comilang), pray on either side of him. As in the rest of his life, Joshua is content enough to look like he belongs, but anyone who cares enough to really see him would know he doesn’t feel at home anywhere.
The humdrum domesticity among the trio — in which the house is cleaned, meals are cooked and outings to church and senior dance class are regularly undertaken — seems like an Edenic blessing never to be regained when Alma dies suddenly and Joshua quits his job as a university janitor to care for the rapidly declining Reynaldo. Joshua didn’t have much of a social life beyond his elderly parents and his married brother Paolo’s (Pablo S.J. Quiogue) family before, but the isolation brought about by caretaking, compounded by the thankless and never-ending nature of the work, consumes both father and son. When Marisol (Sheila Lotuaco), a beautiful, much-younger cousin of Joshua and Paolo’s who’d spent the last few years working as a caregiver in Kuwait, arrives in Canada, it’s only a matter of time before she moves in to help out — and before Joshua falls in love with her.
Plot-wise, there are virtually no surprises in Islands. But the film’s Filipino-diasporic context adds new dimensions to Joshua’s existential slumber, as well as to the gradual awakening of his senses. The professional tumble that immigration often exacts is at least partly to blame for Joshua’s sleepwalk through life, and the heavy emphasis on family in Filipino culture may enable the extreme reticence of a dutiful near-recluse like Joshua.
But his travails are a cakewalk compared to Marisol’s in the Middle East, where Filipino migrant workers are often subject to labor violations, including sexual assault. In keeping with Edralin’s evocative but slightly-too-spare script, we get more of a hint than a full answer in why Marisol never wants to return to her former employer. But through Marisol, who was close to Joshua’s mother, we do get a sense of the secrets carefully shared with or withheld from far-flung family members.
In the press notes, Edralin states that one of the biggest challenges of making his film was casting. There is an amateurishness to the all-Filipino core cast’s performances, nearly all of whom make their screen debuts here. That includes Balagtas, who had only acted in a single short before this lead role. But he acquits himself rather well in a restrained if seldom multi-layered turn, his occasional blankness attributable to Joshua’s own emptiness. More frustrating is Edralin’s static camera, which reflects the protagonist’s inertia but doesn’t render it any more interesting through its lack of movement.
The script is programmatic to the point that its final shot is fully predictable. But that doesn’t take away from the ending’s earned poignancy, nor the freshness of everything that came before. The film’s bittersweet tone, too, feels fully deserved despite the moderate underwritten-ness of most of the characters and the roteness of its message: No man has to be an island, no matter how adrift he may feel.
Production company: Circus Zero Films, Silent Tower Media
Cast: Rogelio Balagtas, Vangie Alcasid, Esteban Comilang, Sheila Lotuaco, Pablo S.J. Quiogue, Isys Szuky, Maximus Szuky, Bianca Yambanis
Director: Martin Edralin
Producer: Priscilla Galvez
Director of photography: Diego Guijarro
Production designer: Helen Kotsonis
Costume designer: Sarah Lake
Editor: Bryan Atkinson
Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Narrative Feature Competition)
Unrated, 94 minutes
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day