"Lingua Franca" is a passion project produced, written and directed by a Filipino transwoman auteur Isabel Sandoval, who was also in front of the camera portraying the lead character. From its release last year and throughout this year, it had made the rounds of several international film festivals and earned positive reviews and won awards along the way. It was picked up and shown on Netflix USA earlier this year. Finally, it is making its Philippine debut this month online via the Cinema76@Home website.
Olivia (Sandoval) was a Filipino trans-woman who worked as a caregiver to Olga (Lynn Cohen), an elderly Russian lady with dementia who lived in Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, New York City. One day, Olga's grandson Alex (Eamon Farren) came home from a stint at a rehab center and started working at a meat processing center owned by an uncle. Eventually, things between Olivia and Alex started off awkwardly as Alex could not change his bad habits right away, but their relationship would later progress to becoming more intimate.
The daily news about the clampdown on illegal aliens during the current administration made Olivia very paranoid of being apprehended by ICE agents. Her Philippine passport still carried her former male name Ryan. While her best friend Trixie (Ivory Aquino), another trans-woman formerly known as Karl, was lucky enough to marry an American man to gain herself a green card, Olivia had not been as fortunate yet. However, just when Olivia may have already won Alex's heart enough for him to marry her, he found out the truth about her.
This was a very reflective film about the unsecured life of an illegal alien in the US. This was a familiar story for many Filipino families who may know someone in that sticky predicament of being a "TNT" (a colloquial term that referred to their constant hiding). A paid fixed marriage is just one of the under-the-table ways they may have to resort to in order to get that precious green card. Olivia was also expected to send money to her family back home. Those frequent ill-timed phone calls from her mother back home asking for money is yet another common experience for OFWs, and Sandoval called it out.
As a trans-woman, Olivia had to deal with another layer of discrimination and uncertainty. Having a trans-woman as the central character in a film is a bold move, especially one that would show the sensual aspects of her life. This trans issue was thrust into public discussion six years ago when an American soldier killed a trans prostitute, and revived this year when he was released by a presidential pardon. Participation of trans-women in sport events and beauty pageants for women always spark heated arguments. They still have a long way to go to gain mainstream acceptance, and Sandoval shared the challenges they face.
Sandoval's approach was deliberately slow and serious, going more for increasing emotional connection with her audience steadily with no comic relief. Audiences will hold their breath to the very end to find out if Olivia and Alex will marry each other or not.
Interestingly, Sandoval chose not to give any easy answers even for that main question, shrouding the ending with some more uncertainty. While it is a brave artistic decision, this cloudy resolution may disappoint some of her viewers who had patiently followed Olivia's journey.
You can watch "Lingua Franca" by clicking on the Cinema 76 virtual theater website. You can unlock the screening for a ticket price of P250, then you'll have 4 days to start watching. Once you begin, you'll have 48 hours to finish watching.
This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."