By Carmen Aquino Sarmiento
Directed by Eduardo Roy, Jr.
LOLA IGNA by the acclaimed filmmaker Eduardo Roy, Jr. got the Best Picture and Best Screenplay (with Margarette Labrador as co-writer) awards for this year’s Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino. Its lead, the theater stalwart Angie Ferro, as the eponymous Lola Igna, won for Best Actress. Ms. Ferro, age 82, plays a 118-year-old woman who lives alone in a bamboo hovel without any indoor plumbing, amidst the rice fields of a fictitious rural barrio. Despite its deceptively bucolic setting, the film deals with such sobering topics as aging alone (because you have outlived most of your loved ones and friends), death, abandonment, and the narcissism of today’s youth.
There is a good naturedly fantastical air to the whole enterprise. Lola Igna’s granddaughter Nida (Maribel Lopez — herself in her 60s) pushes her grandmother to try for the title of the World’s Oldest Living Grandmother, which is part of a Guinesss Book of Records type competition called Amazing People. The title comes with a cash prize of $50,000 for every year of the record-holder’s life. In Lola Igna’s case, that would come to $5.9 million or around P310 million — not too shabby, and enough incentive for her relatives to keep her alive and well. Lola Igna continues to indulge in a glass of tuba (coconut wine), one of the factors to which she attributes her extraordinary longevity. Nida begins bringing her grandmother dinner, although providing her with proper sanitation appears not to be a consideration. The hovel is within range of a cellular tower and Wi-Fi though.
Easy laughs are milked from several scenes of Lola Igna sitting on her chipped and filth-encrusted orinola (chamber pot). An especially memorable one has her impishly dumping its contents upon the handful of tourists who disturb her peace. Another unfortunate scene has Lola Igna having an “accident” during a press conference, because pushy, over-eager Nida refuses to heed the old lady’s plea to let her use the bathroom before having to take the media folks’ questions. Other interview scenes recall the mockumentaries of Christopher Guest.
Nida quickly parlays her grandmother’s proverbial 15 minutes of fame into merchandise for the tourists who trickle in. Lola Igna’s smiling face is emblazoned on T-shirts, mugs, fans. It’s a sly dig at the cult of celebrityhood. Nida’s son Bok (Royce Cabrera) takes the tourists trekking through the rice fields to view his great-grandmother in the wrinkled flesh, much like a carnival sideshow curiosity. Selfies cost extra. Lola Igna initially resists these intrusions, but the arrival of Tim (Yves Flores), a long-lost great-great grandson, who intends to vlog about her, softens her. Soon she’s playing along like a pro. Few elderly persons continue to have financial utility. If she’s going to be taken advantage of, it might as well be by her family.
Lola Igna pines for those who have gone ahead, particularly for her husband Carias (Rener Concepcion). She keeps a shrine in their memory. However, when these dear departed appear to her in an ominously dark rice field in the dead of night, they look downright menacing, more like the walking dead rather than ascended souls illuminating one’s passing on. Unperturbed, she takes this grim encounter as a sign for her to get ready, and borrows carpentry tools from her neighbor Gusting (Armand Reyes). He confides how he worries that as a gay old bachelor, no one will be waiting for him (walang taga-sundo) on the other side. This is one of the film’s most poignant and genuinely touching moments. It is so Filipino, after all, to always want to have company whether at mealtimes or while sleeping. The rest of the ensemble such as Senyang the perky storekeeper, play the benign regular folk one hopes to find in a small Filipino town. Thus, the creepy, pod-people quality of the taga-sundo makes one wonder why death seems to have transformed these good citizens, and not for the better. It may reflect the director’s ambivalence and doubt about death and the afterlife.
The director was said to have been inspired by the 102-year old Kalinga tattoo artist Apo Whang-od Oggay. Roy’s maternal grandparents were also from the Mountain Province but he never knew them. Lola Igna is his whimsical, occasionally fleetingly dark, take on how it might have been if his grandmother had lived long enough for them to meet. Its tone is much lighter than his more recent work — Quick change (2013); Pamilya Ordinario (2016); and F#*@BOIS (2019). The title character might also recall the harmonica-playing Francisca Susano who claimed to have been born on Sept. 11, 1897 (20 years before Ferdinand E. Marcos), in Barangay Oringao, Kabankalan City, Negros Occidental. When she was in the news in 2016, Susano’s eldest daughter Magdalena Ortega, supposedly born in 1914, was already 102 years old. However, neither the Gerontology Research Group nor the Guinness World Records, verified her claims. The last news about Susano was of her turning 119 in 2017, then nothing further appears about her. She’s probably dead by now.