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“Islands” Review: Loneliness, Love, and Growth in a Minimalist Filipino Drama

“Islands” Review: Loneliness, Love, and Growth in a Minimalist Filipino Drama

The lonely, middle-aged virgin man has often been treated as one of the lowest rungs of society. If not an object of pity he is the butt of the joke, as in Judd Apatow’s classic comedy “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” But what happens when that subject is treated with compassion and respect to examine how crushing that loneliness can be? Then you get a film like “Islands.”

Martin Edralin’s Film “Islands”

Martin Edralin’s “Islands,” which premiered at SXSW, is a dual-language film which follows a Filipino family of two elderly parents and their middle-aged son living in Canada. And to be honest, that’s it. That is the whole story. While there are dramatic moments and interactions throughout its runtime, “Islands” does not treat them with the heightened gravitas other films dealing with this subject matter would. It’s an incredibly minimalist film which has an approach that lets these moments be deeply felt by the audience at times—to a fault in places.

Joshua (Rogelio Balagtas), is a shy, 50-year-old janitor who lives with and takes care of his elderly parents Alma (Vangie Alcasid) and Reynaldo (Esteban Comilang). Joshua has no friends, relationships, or interests aside from his family and his religion. He is constantly compared to his successful brother Paolo (Pablo S.J. Quiogue), who works in insurance and is married with kids.

Joshua’s feelings of inadequacy are exemplified early in the film when his mother asks Pablo when she’ll get more grandkids. Pablo replies that he’s done, and it’s Joshua’s turn now, to which their mother replies only “Him? He’s never even had a girlfriend,” as Joshua looks on silently.

When his mother dies, Joshua is left to take care of his ailing father with the help of his cousin Marisol (Sheila Lotuaco), his kind, attractive, and much younger cousin. Joshua is forced to reckon with a future where he has to survive by himself and deal with his burgeoning feelings for his own blood relative.

“Islands” is a slow, meditative film. It’s as much a slice-of-life film as any I’ve ever seen. We watch the family make lunch. Eat dinner. Go to church. Buy groceries. Attend a dance class. All the while the camera lingers, rarely moving and doing as much as possible to make the audience take the role of a fly on the wall. It’s an admirable approach that makes its story feel real and its characters seem like actual people.

It also has to be said that its cinematography is beautiful, framing the characters well while never drawing attention to itself. As a whole, every part of it feels designed to create a slow, meditative approach as Joshua struggles to deal with his loneliness.

It’s a respectful and aching narrative, and the cast’s performances are sweet and authentic too, with many of them being first-time performers. Balagtas’s performance is particularly sweet and poignant, and he conveys his subtle despair extremely well.

But the mundanity of the film is also its greatest weakness. Very little actually happens in the film, and you get the sense that it’s only scratching the surface of a story that has much deeper potential. It’s understated to a fault and sometimes that leaves the audience disinterested as it meanders.

There’s even a full, static shot of a microwave counting down sixty seconds that does not cut away. It’s simultaneously unusually brave and unusually insulting, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie with the audacity to do that.

“Islands” is thus a slow-moving and, at times, predictable movie that comes to an ending that one can see coming a mile away. Nevertheless, it’s also incredibly poignant and beautiful at its conclusion.

It’s a movie that I enjoyed, but it also left me feeling frustrated by its unwillingness to do more. In spite of these complaints, “Islands” is definitely a highlight of the SXSW and an exceptional directorial debut for Edralin that excites me for his future as a filmmaker.

Tags: Film, SXSW, culture