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Mario Bautista, has been with the entertainment industry for more than 4 decades. He writes regular columns for People's Journal and Malaya.

Aug 22, 2018

Signal Rock Movie Review: The Year's Best Film So Far

CHITO RONO’s new opus, “Signal Rock”, with script by noted playwright Rody Vera, is an endearing movie about life in a small island. The title refers to a rocky promontory that juts out into the sea and it’s only there where the island’s residents can use their cell phone to connect with their loved ones abroad.

One of the film’s strengths is the powerful sense of place or setting that it evokes as it was filmed on location in the quaint island of Biri, less than an hour from Catarman in Northern Samar, where Chito hails and where the electricity is cut off at night. And this is surely his personal homage to Biri. It might be dull and provincial to urban dwellers but it appears in the film as a wholesome refuge, where the natives are warm and friendly. It’s peopled by a group of lovable, idiosyncratic characters played by an equally likeable and engaging cast quite unaffected in their performances.

This film about simple folk is somehow reminiscent of the Manuel Silos-LVN Pictures classic, “Biyaya ng Lupa”. The lead character is Intoy (Christian Bables) and the film is a chronicle of his and his kababayans’ simple life in the island. He is shown playing basketball with his friends, going to church with his family, trying to see his girlfriend Rachel (Elora Espano) on the sly since her dad obviously dislikes him, running errands for his folks, acting as emcee in their social affairs, sometimes mischievously poaching their neighbor’s chickens to be “pulutan” for their “inuman”, and communicating regularly with his sister Vicky, who is working as an OFW in Finland (voice by Judy Ann Santos).

We also get to meet other people in the island: Intoy’s mom (Daria Ramirez), dad (Nanding Jose), and parasitic elder brother (Arnold Reyes), also the mayor (Menggie Cobarrubias), his wife (Ces Quesada), the store owner Loida (Sue Prado) and her son Jasper, the jail warden (Dido de la Paz), the parish priest (Lao Rodriguez), the gay municipal clerk (Joel Saracho) and the habal-habal driver Damian (Mon Confiado) and his brother Paeng (Starsky Dulalas) who’ll meet a very tragic end.

We can’t help but think while watching the film that these characters are actually based on real people that Chito Rono has encountered in the island. Intoy is well liked by everyone, even by the mayor who confides to him that he’s really the father of Loida’s son, Jasper.

The people in the island are poor and most of the families expect to get help from their female members who can find work in Manila or abroad, like Mommy Chi (Keana Reeves), whose life improved after working as a japayuki. They’re considered luckier if they could get married to a rich foreigner who could help improve their lives, like what happened to Gina (Mara Lopez), the girlfriend of Kiko (Jomari Angeles), a friend of Intoy, who marries an old German named Helmut, yet still expects to continue her affair with Kiko. Intoy’s own girlfriend is also later sent away by her dad to work in a club in Olongapo.

The otherwise unruffled existence of Intoy is somehow rocked by this, but even more so by his sister,
the battered wife of her foreigner husband who decides to leave him. His sister then battles for custody of their daughter named Sofia and Intoy must seek the help of their kababayans to prove that she is capable of supporting and raising her child by herself.

The usual situation in OFW films, where the family member abroad is the one who helps her relatives, is reversed here. This time, it’s the ones who are left behind who do everything to help their relative who’s having problems abroad. Intoy forges documents that will show his Ate Vicky has enough properties and investments in the island and everyone cooperates with him. Ironically, the generosity of one of Intoy’s friends leads to a grisly crime triggered by sibling rivalry.

The film is about island life we rarely see in local movies. Movies like this are hardly ever made at all so we can consider “Signal Rock” as a precious cinematic miracle, just like Chito’s “Badil”, also set in a small island showing how easy it is to corrupt people during election time. These films are aeons away from Chito’s horror flicks like “Feng Shui” and “Ghost Bride”.

One of the amusing aspects of the film is the weird kind of relationship of Intoy’s parents. They live separately but Daria still cooks Nanding’s meals for him. Daria steals a number of scenes with her one-liners. The embassy man assigned to investigate the case of Vicky refuses to go to their island because of the huge waves on the way there. Instead, he asks Intoy and his parents to go to the mainland to see him.

Daria brings the house down with her quip: “Bakit, mas maliit ba ang mga alon papunta roon?” The sequence showing them while their boat is being dangerously tossed by the waves (Chito say it’s CGI) really made us genuinely fear for their safety. And Daria’s plea on behalf of her daughter is really touching and later proves to be very effective. She deserves a best supporting actress nomination for her affecting performance.

Christian Bables proves his splendid acting in his breakthrough role as the crossdressing Barbs in “Die Beautiful” is not a fluke. He is deglamorized as Intoy, sporting dark make up, and shows that he can also be very effective in a masculine role. His farewell scene in a motel with his girlfriend who he meets again in the city is somewhat reminiscent of a similar heartbreaking scene between Julio Madiaga and Ligaya Paraiso, conveying the same pain and frustraiton but minus the vigorous pumping of Intoy’s naked butt.

But the entire cast deserves to be commended for giving excellent ensemble acting. Chito’s direction that is a personal labor of love. He makes the material accessible to ordinary moviegoers as well as the arthous sphere where it will be hailed as an unpretentious but effective bit of storytelling. Kudos to Neil Daza for capturing the beauty of the film’s milieu. After all the ruckus brought about by Intoy’s unseen sister who doesn’t show at the appointed that she’s supposed to visit, life just goes on for everyone. As it does for all of us.