MMFF review: Iza, Meryll, Jasmine are all beautifully moving in 'Culion'

Fred Hawson

Posted at Dec 25 2019 05:09 PM | Updated as of Dec 25 2019 05:10 PM


When I was still a child, I knew about Culion as a small island of Palawan on which a leper colony had been established. I had not really heard much about it in recent years, about Culion nor about leprosy in general. I'm not even aware if it still exists up to this day. 

This year, director Alvin Yapan and writer Ricky Lee join forces to tell us stories about people who lived in the Culion leper colony established during the American occupation. The Cinema Evaluation Board rewarded this film with a rating of 'A,' which added to its viewing appeal.

It was 1940 and there were three women confined in the Culion leper colony. Ana discovered that she was pregnant by her boyfriend Kanor, but was not sure if they can keep her baby. Former history teacher Ditas cannot get over that her disease had separated her from her boyfriend Greg, and had been trying to kill herself because of it, so far unsuccessfully. Ditas, who taught English to the children in the colony, had a persistent suitor in Jaime, but she had her eyes on the handsome American patient Fred (played by Nico Locco). 

These three women were all strong, independent women who can speak their minds, but had issues with the men in their lives. Behind the prosthetic leprosy lesions on their faces and hands, the three actress playing the central characters all gave beautifully nuanced performances. For the two-hour running time of this film, they held our attention and our sympathy for their plight. All three had their own devastatingly moving scenes, each with barely a word said, but they are guaranteed to melt even the hardest hearts to tears. 

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Iza Calzado was a serious and dignified Ana, who always trusted that she could still get healed and get out of Culion. That scene between Ana and Kanor (a hard-working Joem Bascon) when she told him their baby's name was poignant beyond words. Meryll Soriano delivered strong political statements because Ditas was the most outspoken about her sentiments against the American colonizers. That one scene at the gate with Ditas inside while Greg (an amazing cameo by John Lloyd Cruz) was on the outside was exquisite poetry in its silence. Jasmine Curtis-Smith radiated with such virginal innocence which made her character Doris' story arc all the more grim and crushing. 

Suzette Ranillo was the firm but compassionate head nurse Nay Mameng. Mike Liwag was Jaime, the young man with the limp and pragmatic mindset. Earl Andrew Figueroa was the precocious child Ding, Doris's favorite student. Erlinda Villalobos played Elena, the old woman Doris cared for. Joel Saracho as the Filipino priest Fr. Salvino (with the funny toupee). Raflesia Bravo (who sang the song "Pasko ng Paghihintay" beautifully), Mayen Estanero and Upeng Fernandez played fellow leper patients. There were also foreign actors, like Lee O'Brien (as Colony Chief), Tommy Roca (as Henry), Luminita Gamboa and Elisa Weber as the French-speaking nuns.

Apart from the personal stories of the three lead characters, the filmmakers' political sentiments can be deduced when an American soldier committed a heinous act of treachery or when the patients were left to fend for themselves when an imminent attack by Japanese troops threatened the colony. 

The timeless Ricky Lee impresses yet again with another multi-layered masterpiece of a script, which director Alvin Yapan brought to life with inherent sensitivity and astute artistic choices, in collaboration with his cinematographer par excellence Neil Daza.

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."