There’s a dismal moment near the start of Culion where Meryll Soriano’s character sits somber by a porch on a dark night. She says, "It’s not the sickness that will kill us, [but the] memories." So goes the rest of the film, built with characters anguished by pain and loss, not because of their illness, but by the consequences brought upon by a disease out of their control. Although as the film’s screenwriter Ricky Lee tells Preview, in the end, despite the mounds of grief present, it is, more importantly, a story on love. Dahil nakahahawa and pag-ibig.
“It is a story of how this group of people, who were rejected by human society in the 1940s when there was no cure for leprosy, proved that they can learn to love themselves and love others,” Ricky further describes. “And that is far stronger and more lasting than all the hatred, discrimination and stigma in the world.”
According to the film's official website:
"This is as much the story of three women as it is the story of Culion.
"In the 1940s, Anna, Doris, and Ditas are three patients afflicted with Hansen’s Disease (or widely known as leprosy) who live in Culion at a time when the disease is practically a life sentence. No cure has yet been found, and no one is allowed to leave.
"You live and die there. It is why the place is called the 'Island of No Return.'
"Anna (Iza Calzado) never loses hope that soon a cure will be found, even when her baby is taken away from her. Doris (Jasmine Curtis-Smith) believes in the myth that a beautiful diwata will soon heal the place. Ditas (Meryll Soriano) keeps attempting to kill herself, helpless against the onslaught of memories from the outside world.
"Together the three friends try to negotiate a life of stigma that seesaws between hope and despair, redefining their roles as women, mother, friend, and human being. In the end they prove that neither disease nor death can erase their humanity and their capacity to endure."
Here's What I Think
Directed by Alvin Yapan, Culion chronicles the lives of those forcibly sent to the infamous Leper Colony in Palawan established in 1906. With story arcs grounded on the struggle of its locals, instead of sensationalizing the actual disease plaguing them, the film effectively humanizes and draws sympathy for those casted out by society. Aside from this, the undeniable gripping writing by the screenplay veteran is also a cause of allure for audiences who will find themselves struck by hard-hitting, intelligent, at times humorous and eye-opening dialogue, one scene after the other.
At its heart, the movie’s strength lies in its raw honesty. Yes, sitting in the cinema is essentially an experience of one excruciating defeat after the other, but to sugarcoat the story of Culion would be a disservice to its community. The film, instead, honors the pain and countless memories of those ripped of their rights by grounding the plot with narratives that anyone can resonate with: losing a child, losing your dignity, losing the one you love. Embodied by infectious performances from Iza Calzado, Jasmine Curtis-Smith, and Meryll Soriano, it’s in how these characters deal with the aftermath lies the true story being told, one rife with courage and resilience.
Culion ends at the onset of the Japanese-American war. Its community of Lepers—abandoned by the doctors and soldiers who had promised to protect them—sits as one stronghold on the stairs of their land waiting to defend their home from the attacking Japanese. Beneath the dead of night amongst a brewing storm, thunder rumbles with a flash that wipes their body clean of their lesions. It’s as if to say, that with anguish, courage, and love, as all people feel, they are valid, wholly human, and existed beyond their disease.
So Should You Watch It?
The most straightforward answer is yes. The film's sequencing is haunting, yet it envelopes the viewers with a flurry of hope, an unexpected spark every Filipino deserves to feel this Christmas season.
*Culion is an official entry to the 2019 Metro Manila Film Festival. Catch it in cinemas this December 25.