Food and relationships at the center of new HBO Asia series

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IN ITS SECOND anthology series, HBO Asia presents eight episodes from eight Asian countries telling stories about their connection to food. The pilot episode, Island of Dreams, directed by the Philippines’ Erik Matti from the Philippines, presents a tale of a woman who searches for a better life than what her small island offers.

“As much as this episode is about food, it’s about filmmaking in the Philippine context and also everything about our country — our country has stopped being ambitious… we always settle, we don’t go for perfection even if we can never get there,” Mr. Matti told reporters in a press conference on Oct. 23 at Delgado.112 restaurant in Quezon City.

The episode which premieres on November 3, is a story about a woman, Nieves (played by Angeli Bayani) the eldest of several children who has to settle for meager helpings because her father is a poor fisherman.

“I was born hungry. They say you need to eat to live but if that’s the case, then why can’t everybody eat?” she mused at a young age while watching an elder woman running a carinderia (roadside food stall). She gets tips on how to cook better food for her family despite a small budget, something her father chides her for doing.

“It’s better to put the extra money into buying rice instead of better ingredients. Good food is only for the wealthy,” he says.

As an adult, she goes to Manila to work for a wealthy family whose patriarch (played by Joey Marquez) teaches her how to cook good food, making her realize that food isn’t just for survival.

She comes home to the small town for fiesta (a festival celebrating the feast day of a patron saint) boarding a boat and eating a cream cheese bagel and soon realizes that despite her efforts to try and teach her family how to cook better food, they seem happy with the way things are.

An offer to go to Hong Kong with her employers makes her realize that she may have grown apart from her husband (played by Yul Servo) and her sister (played by Ina Feleo) as she dreams to have a better life and send her children to Manila for formal schooling.

Food Lore is a drama anthology series and not a cooking show. It’s about human conditions set in the backdrop of food,” Karen Lai, vice-president for communications at HBO Asia, said during the press con.

This is the second anthology series from the cable channel after last year’s Folk Lore which revolved around mythical creatures from Asia though this is the first anthology where the Philippines is included.

The show is the brainchild of Singapore filmmaker Eric Khoo and aside from the Philippines, includes episodes shot in Thailand, Indonesia, India, Japan, Vietnam, and Malaysia.

Mr. Matti’s Island of Dreams and Vietnamese filmmaker Phan Bang Di’s He Serves Fish, She Eats Flower premiered at the Tokyo International Film Festival.

And because this is the first Philippine entry in the anthology series, Mr. Matti noted that “a lot was riding on a food story about Filipinos.”

“Because we’re the most un-Asian in the Asian region — we’re more Spanish, we’re more Latin American rather than Asian. So those are the things we took into consideration,” he said.

And to make it universally Filipino, Mr. Matti decided to feature food from all over the country and not just focus on Negrense food (the film was shot in the small island of Cartagena in Negros Occidental) but focus on different Filipino dishes like kare-kare (pork tripe stewed in peanut sauce), lechon (whole roast pig) which they stuffed with batuan (a sour fruit native in Negros), sinigang (sour soup), and adobo (meat cooked in vinegar and soy sauce).

Mr. Matti made it a point to make the island “like any other small island in the Philippines” and not emphasize that it’s an island in Negros.

He also noted the importance of showing international viewers how Filipinos celebrate fiestas because it’s something “international audiences would be excited knowing.”

“We have to include the fiesta and how food brings together communities because for us it’s a communal thing,” he said.

But at its core, Mr. Matti said that the episode is him railing against what he calls the penchant of Filipinos to settle and how his main character is someone who doesn’t.

“There’s a lot of people who settle, but here’s [Nieves] who wants to see things, she’s curious… and she doesn’t settle,” he said.

Food Lore premieres on Nov. 3, 10 p.m. on HBO Asia and HBO Go. The first episode is Island of Dreams. HBO is available on SkyDirect ch. 22 (HD), Cignal TV ch. 53 (SD) and ch. 210 (HD), Sky Cable ch. 54 (SD) and ch. 168 (HD), and in various cable TV providers. HBO Go is HBO’s streaming service exclusive for Sky Cable subscribers in the Philippines and can be downloaded from the Google Play Store and Apple App Store. — Zsarlene B. Chua