It was the 1990s in Biri in Samar province. On this picturesque windswept island, there was hardly any cellphone signal anywhere except atop those precarious rock formations along the seashore. Islanders have to make the climb in order to send a message, or make or receive a call from friends and family elsewhere.
Intoy Abakan (Christian Bables) regularly climbed the rocks so he can use his trusty Nokia 6110 to keep in touch with his sister Vicky (the voice of Judy Ann Santos), who now lived in Finland. One day, Intoy received alarming news from Vicky that she had left her abusive Finnish husband Ysman, and is battling for custody of their daughter Sarah. She needed Intoy's help her get documents to help her prove that she can support her child.
Aside from Vicky and Intoy, the Abakan family was composed of Tatay Jamin (Nanding Josef) and Nanay Alicia (Daria Ramirez), and unproductive eldest brother Joaquin (Arnold Reyes). We also met the Mayor (Menggie Cobarrubias) and his wife Chona (Ces Quesada); Loida (Sue Prado) the grocery owner, Damian the motorcycle driver (Mon Confiado) and his rivalry with his brother Paeng (Starskey Dulalas); Huse (Dido dela Paz) the jail guard; Fr. Bebong (Lao Rodriguez) the parish priest; Manoy Inting (Joel Saracho), the swishy clerk at the municipal hall; Manang Sima (Erlinda Villalobos) the traditional healer, and many more.
The script by Rody Vera had a broader scope than just about the Abakan family. It was a study of how life typically was in a small remote island in the Philippines, being an enclosed society where everyone knew everyone else. Young people respectfully called all their elders with familial titles (like Mommy, Tito, Ate, etc.) as if they were actual kinfolk. Their sense of "bayanihan" (or communal assistance) was such that local government officials and rich neighbors were all willing to help Intoy with his documents to help Vicky, even if these were to be faked.
It also noted that, like Vicky, girls were all being primed by their parents to leave the island to be able to hook a foreigner en route to a better life for the family. Mommy Chi (Keanna Reeves) built her house from money she earned as an entertainer in Japan. Gina (Mara Lopez) set her boyfriend Kiko (Jomari Angeles) aside in order to get married to an elderly German man Helmut. Intoy was devastated when his girlfriend Rachel (Elora Espano) was sent by her father Mario (Archie Adamos) to work in an Olongapo club.
Christian Bables, who won awards in his breakthrough role of transgender beauty queen Barb in "Die Beautiful" (Jun Lana, 2016), was totally deglamorized this time to play island boy Intoy. His brave and dedicated performance led the outstanding ensemble in fleshing out the relationships of the people in this village. Intoy was popular, congenial, and well-loved in town despite his pranks and misdemeanors, and Bables embodied those qualities. His accent sounded authentic, even his broken English. He was convincing as a clueless provincial boy when he made the rounds of OWWA, POEA, and DFA in Manila, effective as a plea to cut OFW red tape. His emotions during that final phone conversation with Vicky on the rock struck deeply.
Among all the supporting actors, the most memorable were Nanding Josef and Daria Ramirez as Intoy's parents. Alicia hated Jamin's guts so much so that they had to live in separate huts, though these were still beside each other and she still cooked for him every meal. Their unusual relationship and living conditions lent itself as diverting and interesting comic relief. Their scenes in the pump boat during the harrowing storm and that one where they appealed on behalf of their daughter were simply so moving and poignant.
Instead of dealing with the travails of the OFW abroad, "Signal Rock" dealt mainly with the lives of the family and friends they left behind on the island. This is one of those rare films where the whole community was collectively the main featured character. It was a thoughtful throwback of sorts to those incisive society dramas by Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal, Mike de Leon, or Eddie Romero in the 1970s and 1980s. I thought all the little details fit in very well and the cast gave an outstanding ensemble effort. It could have left off the murder mystery angle which I felt was out of place in the narrative.
Because of the remoteness of the location, it was clearly apparent that cast and crew had logistical challenges even just getting there for the shoots. The camera work of Neil Daza captured the beauty of the island scenery, the danger of the rocks, the harshness of the climate, and the turbulence of the seas. After "Badil" (one of the best indie films of 2013), director Chito Roño has created another engaging modern masterpiece about rural life in our country. The way the story was interpreted by Roño on screen, I felt I was one with the Abakan family and the community of Biri. 9/10.
This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."