'Signal Rock': Film Review

Courtesy of Busan International Film Festival
A gorgeous portrait of despair and delight.

Veteran director Chito S. Rono explores the country's most pressing issues through the lens of an island village in the Philippines' official Oscar entry.

Referring to a jagged outcropping that juts out into the sea, rises high above the rest of the island and provides the best place to get cellphone reception, Signal Rock is the latest from Philippine auteur Chito S. Rono (Yamashita: The Tiger's Treasure, The Ghost Bride). Shot in bold, bright color that shows off the natural beauty of the island that belies the film’s grimmer elements, Rono’s sprawling story and cast capture the dismal facts of life for many Filipinos while also reveling in the sense of community that makes it bearable. Signal Rock is the Philippines' official foreign-language Oscar entry, which alone could raise its profile and send it on a spin around the festival circuit. Art house distribution is the best the film can probably hope for, but Academy recognition could give it a streaming life after the fact.

At its core, Signal Rock is an ensemble drama chronicling the days, nights, disappointments, triumphs and other sundry happenings in the lives of the Abakan family and their friends and neighbors in Biri, a small Philippine island community. At the center of the action is Intoy Abakan (Christian Bables), a bit of a troublemaker who enjoys stealing chickens and doesn’t have a job other than doing a little of this and a little of that. The island isn’t overflowing with opportunity. He lives with his mother and father (Daria Ramirez and Nanding Josef) and equally underemployed brother Joaquin (Arnold Reyes), and all are supported by their sister Vicky (Judy Anne Santos, heard only on the phone), who is living and working in Finland. When Intoy learns his sister is in an abusive relationship and is on the verge of losing custody of her daughter, he summons the entire village to help forge the necessary paperwork to prove Vicky can support her child should she return to the Philippines.

This segment of Signal Rock has an ever so delicate farcical feel to it, as Intoy goes from person to person asking them to sign over their lives for a few days and help out. The thing is, they do. It’s a small town and regardless of Intoy’s reputation for misbehavior, he’s genuinely sweet, caring and popular. Everyone wants to help, among them grocery owner Loida (Sue Prado); Mommy Chi (Keanna Reeves), who owes her fortune to her time as a bar hostess in Japan; and Paeng (Starskey Dulalas), an old flame with fond memories of Vicky.

However, writer Rodolfo Vera and Chito have much more on their minds than family drama (and there’s plenty). Vera weaves a lot of heady themes and issues into the story, among them the Philippines’ reliance on exporting its largely female labor, the lack of choices for women and the retrograde solution of “finding a foreigner to marry.” Intoy sees it first-hand with two women close to him — Vicky and his girlfriend, Rachel (Elora Espano), who’s getting ready to move to the city for a bar job at her father’s behest. Rachel is resigned to her fate, but a brief reunion in Manila after an argument in Biri between her and Intoy is heartbreaking. They both know she’s going home one day like another young woman from their village, who returned with a much older German husband and introduced her former fiancé as her cousin. Systemic corruption that prevents anything from changing is on Rono’s mind, too. Everyone wants to help Intoy, but they expect something for their help, too, and though large sums of money don’t change hands, corruption eventually rears its ugly head.

Signal Rock’s greatest strength, aside from Neil Daza’s crisp cinematography and a naturalistic, connective central performance by Bables, is its unapologetic emotion. It’s sincere without being maudlin, angry without being shrill and downbeat without being hopeless. Rono and Vera lay the town dysfunction on a little at a time, from nightly blackouts to a town dance gone to pot with a brawl, and end the film on a note that suggests the events that came before are on a sadly repeating cycle. But the grace note hidden within is that the small pleasures and nearly unconditional support the people of Biri find among them every day isn't going away.

Tech specs, with the exception of a storm at sea, are strong, though editor Carlo Francisco Manatad could have tightened up some of the bulk, and a late-inning murder mystery comes out of nowhere — and goes nowhere — in one of the film's few missteps.

Production company: CSR Films
Cast: Christian Bables, Daria Ramirez, Nanding Josef, Elora Espano, Mon Confiado, Arnold Reyes, Judy Anne Santos, Keanna Reeves, Francis Magundayao, Archie Adamos, Sue Prado, Jomari Umpa, Ces Quesada, Kokoy de Santos
Director: Chito S. Rono
Screenwriter: Rodolfo Vera
Producers: Lea Calmerin, Minda Ponce-Rodriguez, Ferdinand Lapuz, Chito S. Rono
Executive producer: Chito S. Rono
Director of photography: Neil Daza
Production designer: Mark Sabas
Editor: Carlo Francisco Manatad
Music: Erwin Fajardo
World sales:
CSR Films

In Tagalog
127 minutes