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By Carmen Aquino Sarmiento

MMFF Movie Review
Directed by Alvin Yapan

AT ANY TIME, not just during the Christmas season when Filipino audiences expect to be entertained, Culion would be a daring enterprise. First it is a period piece, and Filipinos notoriously lack a sense of history, whether ours or the world’s. The events portrayed span 1937 to 1941, which is why the prominence given to the obviously anachronistic Hollywood type sign in cast white concrete letters, spelling out “Culion” and its government insignia, on the side of a mountain, is perplexing. That sign was probably circa 2006 when Culion had its centenary. After so much effort devoted by the production design guys to attempting period authenticity, what with the kerosene lamps and the nearly uniform women cast members’ attire of earth-toned baro at camisa, couldn’t they have erased the damn thing through CGI?

The subject matter is visually disturbing, even upsetting: leprosy with all it terrible mutilations, suppurating sores and execrences galore, disfiguring some of the prettiest faces in the Philippine film industry. Culion was the largest leper colony in the world back then. Early on in the film, there is an attempt by the American administrator to draw a parallel between the situation of the Philippine Commonwealth which was trying to prove Filipinos’ capability for self-government and independence from American Colonial Rule, and the management of the Culion Leper Colony. Historical accounts show that Culion was actually doing quite well back then as a self-contained LGU. It even had women’s suffrage as early as 1908 — nearly 30 years before the Philippines National Assembly decided Filipino women nationwide might have the right to vote.

It turns out that Culion is not so much a historical drama as it is a chick flick along the lines of the screenwriter Ricky Lee’s previous collaborations with the director Marilou Diaz-Abaya, i.e., Moral (1982) and Brutal (1980). Here, the three major story lines revolve around: Anna (Iza Calzado), Ditas (Merryl Soriano) and Doris (Jasmine Curtis-Smith). Like the circle of life, the film opens and ends with Anna and the leprous fisherman Kanor (Joem Bascon) having coitus — it’s not love-making since Anna claims she has no feelings for Kanor. She has become an emotional leper as well, it seems, that is, until she has a baby. Selfishly, she wants to keep the child even though statistics from that period showed that an infant had a 50% chance of developing leprosy (then incurable) if it remained with its infected mother beyond earliest infancy.

Kanor leaves Culion on a doomed quest to reclaim their child from Welfareville in Manila. Of course, he fails, and is even beaten and robbed for his trouble. Instead of sympathizing, Anna abusively berates him for being useless. Towards the film’s end, when Japanese military forces have invaded Palawan, Anna excitedly urges Kanor to get it on with her again. It boggles the mind why she is convinced that the best time for a leper couple to have a baby is in the middle of a hostile invasion, when everyone else is fleeing — including most of the Culion medical staff. Historical records also show that over half of Culion’s population perished in the Second World War.

Since this is a period piece, certain bits of dialogue, such as the use of the term “long sleeves” by a pre-World War II provinciano are particularly jarring. Take the scene where Kanor’s fellow leprous fisherman are talking about how they get pen pals from all over Europe and the USA. They claim that revealing they have leprosy was an added come-on to those lonely ladies. There must have been some truly desperate women out there back then, who would even send them gifts of cash and rubber shoes. Rubber shoes were simply not a thing eight decades ago. Even cash might be a problem, since Culion had its own currency.

The Doris character is given to other-worldly visions, reminiscent of Elsa in Lee’s Himala (1982, directed by Ishmael Bernal). She has a crush on the lone Caucasian leper, an American soldier, who is brought to Culion aboard what looks like a two-story pleasure barge, with split bamboo awnings. Coast Guard cutters were used to transport the lepers back then. Ms. Curtis-Smith who is obviously a Caucasian mestiza (mixed-race) herself, wears a lot of bronzer for this role, to make her mooning and gushing over how white the American soldier leper is, more believable. She stalks him, as he has been hiding in the jungle like a Japanese straggler, to avoid his repatriation. She encounters him in a cave. He calls her “sexy.” That term is so not in keeping with the custom of that period (watch Key & Peele’s comedy sketch “Catcalling in the Olden Days”), that Doris’ surprised reaction is laughably authentic. Searching through American urban slang dictionaries showed that the term then was “ginchy,” which of course, would be meaningless to today’s audience.

Weirdly, the American soldier leper gets so aroused by Doris’s talking about her idolatrous love of the United States, a country which he never wants to see again, that he impulsively rapes her. The sexual assault is artsily rendered with black quivering shadows against the cave’s walls while Curtis-Smith screams in agony. Like Daniel Smith in the 2005 Subic Rape Case, this Commonwealth Era rapist is brought back to the States, albeit against his will, so he also got away with his crime. Doris meets a tragic end, while Smith’s alleged victim “Nicole” recanted and moved to the USA, where presumably, she now lives the American Dream.

Ditas was so depressed about her leprosy that she left her groom-to-be Greg (John Lloyd Cruz) standing at the altar — without even the courtesy of a letter explaining that she had been taken to Culion. Still he comes to see her, looking forlornly out-of-place among all those camisa de chino and baggy kundiman trousers. Greg might be a hipster with his light button-down polo shirt, summer slacks, and the mid-life crisis, tiny corkscrew ponytail peering from beneath his chic straw fedora. But hey, he’s JLC, with two initials in common with JC, so he can get away with it. One wonders how Ditas dressed back in the day when they were still dating. Initially, she had tried to kill herself, but eventually, she came around. Towards the film’s end, much of her nose has been eaten away by the disease. But with Doris gone, she decides to take her place as the community’s school teacher, resuming what had been her profession in the outside world. She has accepted her fate and is ready to live again. In today’s parlance, she has “moved on.” As Dostoevsky said, people can get used to anything, even losing one’s nose.

MTRCB Rating: PG