"This is one movie that will be etched in my memory for the rest of my human existence."


I was privileged to watch, together with a daughter and my eldest grandson, the premiere of a movie that is one of the Metro Manila Film Festival’s offerings for the holiday season.  Together with us were Senator Ping Lacson, Secretary Liling Briones and her husband Caloy, and the AFP Chief of Staff, General Clement, along with many friends in media.

It is so difficult to classify as a mere love story between couples desperately seeking some happiness while being condemned by a then-incurable sickness to outcasts of the entire country, or a poignant historical drama set on an island so far removed and so desolate. Culion is moving. The dramatic moments are so poignant they bring tears to the eyes.

Culion is the island between Coron and El Nido in the northern part of Palawan where the Americans exiled everyone afflicted with Hansen’s disease or leprosy. At that time, there was yet no definitive cure for the ailment, and it was feared to be a highly contagious disease.

The movie details the loneliness of people shunned by their closest of kin and community, lives shattered by separation and clinging to the futile hope that one day soon, there would be a cure to their disease.  But it is in the love stories woven into Culion’s story and screenplay by the inimitable Ricky Lee that we see how humanity trumps even the worst of situations for people considered sub-human by their fellows.

The lead actors, Iza Calzado and Joem Bascon, along with Meryl Soriano and Jasmine Curtis as supporting actors, gave stunning portrayals that ought to win them acting awards.  Even the bevy of character actors deserve encomiums for their work.  I am not one who has the time or interest to follow Philippine cinema, except for an occasional movie every now and then.  But Culion is one movie that will be etched in my memory for the rest of my human existence.

Shot entirely on location, it is a work of love by a couple who have made Palawan their home after my friend Peter Sing first stepped on its soil in 2007 to strategize for a political campaign and has stayed ever since, enthralled by the loveliness of paradise vivified by its cluster of pristine islands.  When Peter and his wife Gillie visited the former leper colony, they were moved by its history, and the stories woven into that history.

The audience instinctively applauded the cameo appearance of the long-missing John Lloyd, who in the brief speechless moment when the camera showed his tearful face, proved once more why he is so missed by Filipino moviegoers.

See Culion. And through your Facebook and Twitter, spread the word to friends that Culion is a must-see. It is rather long, more than two hours I guess, but it is well worth your time and money.  I would not even make a comparison with some of the sure money-makers in the usually inane flicks Culion shares company with in the two week phantasmagoria of local cinema.  That is almost blasphemous.

I would rather compare it with some of the best—langorous compared to the fire of Heneral Luna, soft-spoken as in whispers of desperation versus the curses on the revolutionary hero’s rants, but an equally powerful portrait of an era long gone and almost forgotten by the Filipino people.

The movie ends with a surprising twist with a message of unexpected survival.  The Japanese had invaded the Philippines in December of 1941, but were afraid to go to Culion for fear of contagion.  Then the residents of the segregated part of the island, the “sanos” or healthy, uninfected people who earlier shunned the lepers, joined them to be saved from the oncoming invaders.

In the most desperate of situations, we can be one with those we condemned from our midst.  

* * *

As this is my last column for the year, I am quite thankful for the enthusiastic support that the Manila Economic and Cultural Office, our de facto embassy in Taiwan, has been getting in the last three years from our 160,000-strong Filipino community.

In a recent Christmas party organized by Filipinas married to Taiwanese in southern Kaohsiung, their first ever even for some who had been in Taiwan for more than 20 years, the fun of bonding was accompanied by the hope that Taiwan would learn more and understand the rather “foreign” culture of Filipinos.

A Taiwanese university professor who accompanied his Filipino wife along with a son and a musically talented daughter spoke about how he and his wife wished the Taiwanese government would be more pro-active in integrating foreigners into the mainstream of their society, and how Filipino culture could help enrich Taiwanese culture and vice-versa.

The process though has begun for in the last three years. Strides have been taken, both by MECO and TECO which represents Taiwan in our country, to hasten such integration.  Our native Pilipino has been introduced into the elementary school curriculum as an option, especially for children of mixed marriages.  MECO brought in Filipino professors of Pilipino to Kaohsiung where they helped edit the books written by Taiwanese language teachers in a joint undertaking.

Another component of these programs is the conduct of language training classes, hoping to teach Filipino workers basic Mandarin and propagate the Filipino language through accreditation of Filipino language teachers. There has been more than a hundred participants from the south in this endeavor which is now also being replicated in our extension office in Taichung.

Some OFWs foresee advanced knowledge of Mandarin as a valuable key to better paying jobs in the future. The Taiwan government and its universities have been quite supportive.

As part of our outreach programs for Filipinos in Taiwan, MECO has been conducting livelihood training programs, empowering Filipinos with the skills to be able to put up their own small business and make sound investments when they return to our country.

A spin-off of our regular efforts to connect with the Filipino community, MECO’s field office in Kaohsiung has been holding trainings in food production and preparation along with basic accounting for entrepreneurs to enable returning overseas workers to support themselves as they reintegrate to the Philippines.

Close to half a million Filipinos have visited Taiwan this year, just as close to 300,000 Taiwanese visited our country, a record high.

Geographically so close, yet with cultural differences that have yet to be bridged.  The efforts have been enhanced, thanks to the inspiration given by our president, Rodrigo Duterte, whose policy of being friend to all peoples and enemy to no country, along with the admonition to take care of overseas Filipino workers, is well taken and well observed.

Let me close by wishing our readers a bounty of blessings in this season of grace, and a hopeful New Year that will fulfill your aspirations.

Topics: Lito Banayo , Culion , Palawan , Metro Manila Film Festival , Manila Economic and Cultural Office , MECO
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