Filipino Film Reviews at Reel Asian Filmfest: Ugly truths and emotional toll

November 11, 2016 / The Philippine Reporter /

Apocalypse Child

In 1976, the crew of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now inadvertently launched surf culture in the Philippines after the production wrapped filming and left behind a surfboard in the beach town of Baler.

At least that’s the myth we’re told at the beginning of Apocalypse Child, a film where nothing is what it appears to be.

It follows the story of Ford, a surfing instructor in Baler and yet another byproduct of the Apocalypse Now production. Local legend has it that director Coppola is his father, having impregnated his mother, who was an extra on set at the time.

Ford lives a laid-back, beach bum lifestyle, along with his free-spirited girlfriend. But it’s all upended with the return of his childhood friend Rich, who is now a local politician about to marry his fiancee. Although Ford and Rich were once as close as brothers, there’s obvious bad blood between them now, and no one but the two of them seems to know the real reason why.

The power of myths is the central theme in Apocalypse Child — not just myths about our culture or the town we grew up in, but also the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, says director Mario Cornejo.

He wrote the screenplay along with his girlfriend Monster Jiminez, who is also the film’s producer. At the time, the couple were in their thirties and trying to have their first child.

“I wanted to tell a story about getting older,” Cornejo said, “and about the myths that are believed that we tell ourselves about who we are — and also about fatherhood.”

The world that Cornejo creates to tell this story feels refreshingly natural, raw and intimate, thanks to his simple approach to directing and Jiminez’s expert casting.

“I try to do very little,” he said. “We tried to set a certain mood, a mood where [the actors] could feel free to be natural and just be themselves.”

The film opens with Ford and his girlfriend Fiona, wonderfully acted by Sid Lucero and Annicka Dolonius, surfing and then later lying in bed together. Their chemistry and natural comfort with each other makes the audience feel like we’re watching an authentic moment between a real couple. (In fact, Lucero and Dolonius fell in love on set and are now a real-life couple.)

“I think we just put the right atmosphere together, and with the right atmosphere and the right casting, it should happen,” Cornejo said. “I’m so proud of all my actors — they really did all the heavy lifting.”

The cast is indeed stellar, featuring accomplished Filipino actors who bring depth to each of the characters: Lucero as the charismatic but immature Ford, who looks like he could actually be the son of Francis Ford Coppola. Dolonius as the free-wheeling but wise-beyond-her-years Fiona, who seems to be the only one unwilling to buy into everyone else’s delusions. RK Bagatsing as the stoic and calculating Rich, who carries the burden of a dark past. Gwen Zamora as the sweet but haunted Serena. Ana Abad-Santos as Ford’s wide-eyed mother, Chona, who never really seemed to grow up after having a baby at 14. And Archie Alemania as Jordan, who mostly stays out of the way until it’s time to call someone out.

Another stand-out character is the town of Baler itself. Its idyllic landscapes, featuring pristine sand, surf and rolling green hills, are captured on film beautifully by cinematographer Ike Avellana. It’s a little easier to understand how each character is able to escape their harsh realities for so long when they live in a beach paradise.

“Baler is magical, everyone should go,” said Cornejo, who spent 16 days shooting there with the actors. “It’s so isolated that you really feel you’re in this bubble.”

Like the town of Baler, Apocalypse Child is a worthy escape from reality, although not always a pleasant one. It’s a simple but compelling story that forces its characters, and the audience, to look beyond the beautiful landscapes and face ugly truths.

It makes its Canadian premiere on Nov. 15 at TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of the Reel Asian Film Festival. It’s rated for audiences 18 and over due to explicit sex scenes and adult subject matter.


For anyone who grew up in an immigrant household in North America, Ponytail will feel familiar.

Written and directed by emerging filmmaker Gerald Patrick Fantone, the 12-minute film tells the story of a Filipino teenage girl who secretly enters an open casting call for models and encounters a strange and curious world where she doesn’t quite fit in.

“A part of me is in there,” says Fantone, who is himself a first-generation Filipino immigrant and moved to Toronto when he was 15 years old. “It was a very precious time of trying to form myself…being a minority, being in high school and trying to fit in.”

Fantone’s directorial style is lucid and restrained, with an attention to detail that keeps viewers engaged until the end credits. There are understated but deliberate gestures and moments — like when our protagonist uses a Sharpie marker to touch up scuffs on her high-heeled sandals — that add to the realism of the world and the character we’re watching on screen.

Beyond the first few minutes, the film has very little dialogue. But Isabel Kanaan, who plays the main character, does a wonderful job using facial expressions instead of words to let us know what she’s feeling and thinking as she navigates between two different worlds. And with each curious and perturbed glance, we’re right there with her.

Ponytail is screening on Nov. 14 at TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of the Reel Asian Film Festival’s Youth Shorts Presentation.

Sunday Cinderella

Every year in Hong Kong, on Philippine Independence Day, thousands of Filipino domestic helpers take part in an annual beauty pageant.
That’s the backdrop for Sunday Cinderella, a 26-minute documentary by director Baby Ruth Villarama. But the film’s real focus isn’t actually the pageant — it’s the stories of three contestants and their lives in Hong Kong as live-in caregivers.

There’s Cherrie Mae Bretana, hired by a working couple to take care of their young son; Mylyn Jacobo, who looks after an elderly man living alone; and Hazel Perdido, who misses the one-year-old son she left behind.

On Sundays, their only day off from work, they congregate in a city square with thousands of other Filipino maids and nannies, to dance, socialize, relax and escape the stress of their daily chores.

The film offers a revealing and fascinating look into these women’s lives, even bringing us into the homes of their employers. It shows us the emotional toll of being away from the people they love most in order to earn money to give them a better life.

The power of the film really lies in these personal stories. The beauty pageant is kind of a throw away device, and at the end, when the winners are announced, it doesn’t really feel like there’s much at stake. What really matters is whether these three caregivers will find their happy ending — and that still remains to be seen.

Sunday Cinderella is screening on Nov. 14 at TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of the Reel Asian Film Festival’s Youth Shorts Presentation.