Myths and reality exist apart, but they depend on each other for their very existence. The stories need people to empower them though the retelling, and we need the stories to understand the world around us and our place in it. Apocalypse Child opens with a brief nod to some of the myths occupying the Filipino town of Baler’s past. They’re typically epic affairs, but it’s the less grand one mentioned last that sits at the core of the film.
A critically acclaimed American movie about the Vietnam war was filmed in the area back in 1976, and legend has it that its famous director had an affair with a local girl of only fourteen years old. He returned to the States, and nine months later she gave birth to a baby boy.
That’s the story Ford (Sid Lucero) has heard all his life from his single mom, Chona (Ana Abad Santos), but it’s one he’s never believed to be true. He’s lived a carefree life as a surf instructor, bouncing between liqueur and ladies, but he’s recently come to find a contented happiness with a young woman named Fiona (Annicka Dolonius). The illusory calm is disrupted though when his childhood friend Rich (RK Baggatsing), now a local congressman, returns to town with his fiance, Serena (Gwen Zamora), and stirs up both the past and present.
The identity of Ford’s father is a catalyst of sorts here, but it’s far from the focus of Mario Cornejo and co-writer Monster Jimenez’s beautiful, raw, and affecting film. Instead it’s the idea of escaping one’s past through self-deception and distraction that pervades the screen alongside gorgeous visuals and performances. You can’t look away no matter how much you may want to.
Rich’s arrival reignites a feud between he and Ford, one that the latter refuses to face even as the former pushes harder and harder. A shared pain from the past, one Rich bore the brunt of, still sits as a rift between them. Serena has her own history, one that’s left her uncertain of her own worth, while Chona spends her days seeking validation and her nights drowned in alcohol.
Only Fiona sits outside this circle of regrets, and she even acknowledges as much when she asks “what is going on, people don’t talk like this, this place is weird.” Her own pain is set in the present as a beloved relative nears death, but she comes to appreciate the power of the past when she finds herself caught up in Ford’s personal drama.
There’s a story here, a few actually threaded in and out of each other, but the film’s as much of a character study as narrative piece. We watch them struggle, both with the past and in the present, and we can’t help but go along for the journey – sometimes willingly, sometimes by force. Credit for that powerful pull is shared equally by cast and crew as everything about this movie is just so damn beautiful.
Cinematographer Ike Avellana delivers an endlessly attractive film from start to finish – to be fair, he is aided by Baler’s natural beauty, but we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt here. There’s a natural sensuality to much of the film, a sexy, alluring vibe evident in scenes of nothing more than two characters sharing the water and maybe a board. The connection they share is tangible and seductive, and it becomes impossible to resist.
The script and direction set a low-key, personal stage for all that follows, the music by Armi Millare speaks perfectly to the emotions being explored, and the characters draw us closer even as their actions become increasingly questionable and hurtful. It helps that all of the leads do strong work in making us care even if we don’t agree with their choices – emotional pain is a universal feeling, and we’ve all felt variations of this before.
Santos is a standout playing a woman just fourteen years older than her child who continues to act like a peer instead of a parent. Her pride in Ford is challenged only by her desire for validation and approval for herself, and it makes for a painful watch at times. Dolonius meanwhile seems at first to have the lighter role, but as things develop Fiona becomes an additional entry point for viewers into the drama. What pains us in youth can often be brushed off in later years, but Dolonius shares a heart-wrenching performance guaranteed to drive you back to your own memories of loss and confusion.
Apocalypse Child is a beautiful little film about people in distress in paradise. You can’t help but feel for their situation, even if you are a bit jealous as to where they’re situated.
NYAFF 2016 runs June 22nd through July 9th