Review: Culion: Brilliant acting in mesmerizing drama of love, hope, despair

Edmund Sylvestre

DON’T be fooled by what may seem like a slow opening in the Alvin Yapan-megged “Culion” as the first few minutes establish the characters and premise of the story. Before you know it, you’re hooked and trapped with the lepers -- in this powerfully haunting movie.

Written by Ricky Lee (“Himala,” “Karnal,” “Moral,” “Brutal”) and based on true experiences, “Culion” captures the curse of leprosy or Hansen’s disease with an eye-opening account of the untold misery of the outcast in the biggest leper colony in the world in the 1940s.

Set against the backdrop of a beautiful and peaceful island of Culion, the movie’s genuine strength rests largely on the bravura performances of Iza Calzado (as Anna), Jasmine Curtis-Smith (as Doris) and Meryll Soriano (as Ditas), playing best friends struggling to fight for their rights as a woman, mother, and human being given their dreaded condition beyond their control.

Together with a strong support cast led by Suzette Ranillo (Nay Mameng), Mike Liwag (Jaime), and Joem Bascon (Kanor), plus a remarkable cinematography by Neil Daza and outstanding costume design, set design and special effects make up -- the film successfully brings us back to a dark time to witness the heartbreaking stories and inconceivable pain and sufferings of the hospital inmates that are unknown to many to this day.

Marvel at the solid acting of the major cast, which makes up for the film’s weaknesses.

Calzado, in a performance reminiscent of the great Hilda Koronel in “Insiang,” has several gripping moments that attest to her divine talent. In the scene where she is deprived to hold her newborn to cut any emotional ties between mother and daughter pending the baby’s adoption, Calzado’s desperate but subdued reaction is too much to bear, and so is her frantic pleading with Kanor to make love to her and impregnate her again after their baby is taken away.

Soriano shines in all her quiet moments as Ditas such as when she imagines dancing with her ex-fiance Greg (John Lloyd Cruz), whom she stood up on their wedding day because of her affliction. Another is Ditas’ heart wrenching encounter with Greg, who pays her a visit only to be told by a guard that she can only be seen from afar. It is one of the most moving cameos in Philippine cinema with the spectacular Cruz spending only seconds on screen yet leaving an immense impact just by exchanging looks with Soriano’s character. Also an award-winning actress like Calzado and Curtis-Smith, Soriano only gets better and better.

Curtis-Smith radiates as Doris, who clings to eternal hope that she will one day be healed by a diwata (fairy) and escape the limbo she’s trapped in since childhood. She’s at her best with low-key acting that won her best actress honors for “Siargao” at the 2017 Metro Manila Film Festival and other award-giving bodies. But Doris’ world is shattered when she gets violated by an American (Nico Locco) she’s befriending. Here, Curtis-Smith shows what acting is all about when her sweet Doris unleashes pent-up torment that pushes her to commit the unthinkable. What comes next is an unexpected dreadful event that unravels quite fast you don’t know what hits you.

Bascon never falters as Kanor, who is head over heels for Anna even if she only uses him for her carnal needs and nothing more. Bascon stands out in all his scenes with Calzado. When Anna recognizes Kanor as the father of her baby, he reciprocates her by slowly dropping on his knees in tears to thank her. Bascon is simply marvelous you feel nothing but empathy and compassion.

Ranillo’s acting is effortless but intense as Nay Mameng, the head of volunteers who gives orders and maintains peace (and sanity) in the leprosarium. Her splendid time includes an impassioned plea to inmates to refrain from escaping the island and learn to embrace life in the only place that will accept them. She shines as well in her scenes with Calzado, such as that tender moment when she reveals why she has devoted her life at the leprosarium when she’s a sano (not infected). Ranillo, described by Ricky Lee as one of the most underrated actors in Philippine cinema, proves she can always rise to the challenge of bigger and compelling roles.

Liwag also delivers a fine work as Jaime, a leper who adores Doris, who, unfortunately, is interested in another man. The happy-go-lucky Jaime is unscrupulous and has no ambition, which turns Doris off. He, nonetheless, is willing to wait for Doris even if fate is not on their side. Liwag gets to display his dramatic chops when his world is turned upside down following a tragedy that unfolds right before his very eyes.

The rest of the ensemble—including Simon Ibarra, Lee O’Brian, Mai Fanglayan, Nico Locco, Aaron Concepcion, Yam Martinez, Upeng Fernandez, Erlinda Villalobos, Earl Andrew Figueroa, and Joel Saracho -- are given equal amount of importance to showcase their acting chops.

“Culion,” as a historical period drama, could have gotten to a great start had actual old photos of the inmates and visual representations of their past made it to the opening credits to remind audiences that the characters they are about to meet actually existed. And it would have been more powerful had the real survivors of the now closed leprosarium been shown at the end of the film just like in the Oscar-winning “Schindler’s List,” where some of the actual Jewish survivors saved by Oskar Schindler during the Holocaust are shown that give the film a more profound effect.

Nevertheless, “Culion” successfully elevates the subject matter to the national stage and presents the history of the social stigma that continues to hover over Culion island to this day and which the producers Shandii Bacolod with Gillie and Peter Sing of iOptions Ventures Corp. want to help erase.

The film, Graded A by the Cinema Evaluation Board, is worth your time and money. Don’t forget to bring your hankies.