The upcoming film Culion, an entry to the 2019 Metro Manila Film Festival, is a must-see especially for all educators about Palawan and its history. This is because the film is a superb historical visual literature that effectively tackles the often misunderstood narrative of today’s vibrant Culion – once a detested colony of lepers forcibly separated from their families and shunned by society and the rest of the world.

Produced by the newbie film outfit iOptions Ventures, the Iza Calzado starrer is far from being an indie undertaking as one might suspect. It is a robust film with all the trappings of a major work such that it was recently graded A by the Cinema Evaluation Board. Following its world premiere showing in Culion town and its gala opening in Manila early this week, the movie has already earned well-deserved praises from some of the most discerning critics from the mainstream film industry.

Apart from the novelty of being filmed in its entirety in Culion, as the film is set in the former leper town circa 1940s, the movie is a powerful collaboration among current film industry standouts led by the highly-respected and multi-awarded scriptwriter Ricky Lee and Director Alvin Yapan. It stars Iza Calzado, Merryl Soriano and Jasmine Curtis-Smith and a high-powered support cast that includes Joem Bascon, Suzette Ranillo and Mike Liwag.

The historical drama flick centers on three women – Anna (played by Calzado), Doris (Jasmin Curtis-Smith) and Ditas (Merryl Soriano) – who struggles with isolation and desperation faced by every leper patient condemned to the island for life, or at least until a cure is found.

The film only touches in part the medical science’s final triumph over leprosy as a feared disease, but it is evident in the storyline that the colony played a key role in this quest. It makes accurate reference to the medical protocols of the era, involving mainly the injection into the patients’ skin lesions a concoction derived from an Indian fruit called chaulmoogra. As medical history now shows, Culion was the final juncture of man’s elusive 100-year search for a cure to the disease.

Script writer Ricky Lee did his homework well in making sure the film hewed to the accurate historical context. This was attested by no less than the chief of the Culion Sanitarium and General Hospital and the Culion Museum and Archives, Dr. Arturo Cunanan. In a recent interview with Palawan News, Dr. Cunanan disclosed that he had to closely engage the film producers and staff to ensure that the film was “done right.”

Overall, the film is an ensemble of talents perfectly matched. The casting for the movie was a masterstroke in assembling established and budding artists, all coming together in a fluid performance to execute a solid and well-researched Lee masterpiece.

The film begins with a depiction of the time when the United States as the country’s colonial masters imposes a segregation policy on all persons afflicted with the dreaded leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease. At that time, leprosy had no known cure and the Hansenites, also commonly called “leproso”, were all exiled in the island. All those afflicted with disease that was highly contagious and caused muscle and limb deformities oftentimes leading to death were not allowed to mingle with the population.

Treated no differently from ordinary prisoners, the leprosos are forcibly separated from their families and exiled to Culion to undergo treatment. The leprosy segregation law of 1907 imposed by the American government was the policy backdrop that stoked a widespread social stigma associated with the disease.

Iza Calzado, playing Anna, essays the emotional and psychological suffering of a leproso, in her case having to give birth to a child, fathered by Kanor, who is played by Joem Bascon. As colony policy, the healthy newborn child is separated from the afflicted mother, without needing a parent’s consent, and brought elsewhere for adoption. The superb acting by the movie’s two main characters, unarguably award-winning performances on the part of Calzado and Bascon, is one of the film’s several defining moments.

In the Culion of old, the leprosos lived and died in a world defined by their affliction. They were allowed to govern themselves, as they were not to interact with the rest of society. They even had their own currency, an attempt by the Americans at applying a Western-style economic model in the context of a confined physical environment.

It is in this backdrop that Doris (Jasmin Curtis-Smith) decides to end her miserable life, when her vision of a fairy tale romance ends in a violent rape and plunges her into utter hopelessness. Jasmin’s nuanced acting here was powerful and convincing.

Merryl Soriano, playing the character of Ditas, a desperate soul who stood up her own wedding because of the disease, submits a performance par excellence. Her gripping no-dialogue scene with the erstwhile reclusive John Lloyd, who appears as Ditas’ former fiance Greg, will reverberate throughout the MMFF festival and beyond for its sheer impact and novel eye-acting. John Lloyd’s performance here was icing on a cake, deliciously heart-tugging.

The film ends with a tableau of the leprosos anticipating a Japanese attack on their colony that never came, as war broke out and nearby Coron was bombed and occupied by the invaders. As one of the film’s main characters observes, even the imperial Japanese army was afraid to set foot in Culion.

And according to history, they never did during their entire occupation of Palawan. What the Japanese did was to impose a naval blockade of the Mindoro Straight to cut off supply to the island and starve its depraved inhabitants to death.

Historical accounts at the finely curated Culion Museum and Archives notes that the Japanese naval blockade alone led to the reduction of the island’s leper population from 7,000 patients in 1935 to only 2,000 after the liberation. Most died from starvation; the others shot by the Japanese at sea while attempting to escape the island.

Culion the movie is a most powerful material to learn enough about the island’s colorful history, in lieu of actually visiting the meticulously curated Culion Museum and Archives which showcases a wide collection of rare journals and reference materials on leprosy, as well as clinical records and letters of the island’s residents since 1906.

The museum itself is of such significance that in June 2018, it was inscribed by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) into its Memory of the World Registry.

The movie itself deserves its own place in Palawan’s history for its sheer brilliance.

Cast: Iza Calzado, Jasmin Curtis-Smith and Meryll Soriano, with Suzette Ranillo, Mike Liwag and Joem Bascon.
Showing December 25 at SM Puerto Princesa
Directed by Alvin Yapan
Script by Ricky Lee