Actresses Iza Calzado, Jasmin Curtis-Smith, and Merryl Soriano play lead roles in the feature film Culion, a Metro Manila Film Festival 2019 official entry.

What started as a dream eight years ago to tell the rich history of Culion is now a motion picture with a mission to help eliminate the leper-related stigma associated with the island town, said its producer.

Gillie Sing of iOptions Ventures Corp. said more than fulfilling a long-time dream to narrate how past events and human affairs contributed to what the town is today, Culion is the realization of their eagerness to do away with the mark of disgrace that the beautiful town is known for when it became a leprosarium during the American occupation.

Sing clarified that the feature film is not about leprosy per se; it is about the main life events during the times when both the natives of Culion and the patients had to co-exist on the island to live as normal as they could.

“We did not talk about the disease kasi gusto namin alisin ang stigma. Ang kuwento ay about the life at the time na mayroong leprosy. It’s not about leprosy per se, ‘yon ang gusto namin sabihin na hindi namin pino-focus yong sakit,” Sing said during their Thanksgiving Party following the movie’s selection as an official entry to the Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF).

Sing said although they are not a production company, they realized that the movie can be used as a vehicle to share messages that can help improve the public’s negative outlook about Culion.

“When we started this project, ang sabi namin sa creative group namin, this is going to be our first and last project kasi hindi naman talaga kami production company. However, noong nagka-umpisahan na, mukhang nag-i-enjoy naman kami and ang daming message na puwedeng gamitin na vehicle ‘yong movies,” she said.

Culion movie cast 

Sing said that the cast of the movie was selected through open casting except for the main leads who were chosen prior to the open casting audition. Aside from this, there is local participation from Culion.

Some actors were residents of the municipality who auditioned for the roles they will portray. She said this is a part of getting Culion close to home.

“We chose the main leads. Si Mike (Liwag), we got him through audition, marami-rami rin nag-audition even si Lee O’Brian. Nag-open casting kasi kami and we also got I think 50 children, mga teenager sa Culion. May local participation kaya ang galing nga,” she said.

She also shared Ricky Lee’s handpicked cast when he was writing the script, Iza Calzado being his first choice.

Sing said when Lee was writing the script, he had the names of three actresses in mind — Calzado, Anne Curtis Smith, and Judy Ann Santos.

“Noong sinulat ni Ricky yong script, tatlong pangalan ang lumabas sa kanya during his interview. Sabi niya ay sinulat niya ‘yon with Iza in mind, yong role ni Merryl (Soriano) was, if I’m not mistaken, ay si Juday (Judy Ann Santos) and role ni Jasmin (Curtis-Smith) ay intended for Anne (Curtis-Smith). Hindi namin nakuha ‘yong dalawa,” she said.

She also shared that the special appearance of John Lloyd Cruz in the movie has an integral role to play in the story. It was Cruz’s first big-screen appearance after his showbiz hiatus.

“We really needed someone na malakas ang appeal. Hindi siya ‘yong artista na bago, hindi ‘yon ang kukunin namin kasi wala siyang impact. Kita niyo naman ‘yong role niya, napaka-simple lang pero napaka-powerful. Siguro hindi siya kakayanin ng ibang baguhang artista,” she said.

Artists’ perspective on the movie

Joem Bascon, who played the role of “Kanor”, narrated that he was notified as part of the cast while the drafting of the story was ongoing.

“Hindi ako magkakaroon ng second thought. I am happy to do roles na kahit anong istorya. Very inspirational ‘yong story, ang dami mo makukuhang aral sa kanya kasi ‘di lahat na Pilipino na kababayan natin alam ‘yong Culion,” he said.

Mercedes Cabral who also has a special participation in the movie shared that she wanted to audition at first. However, having already done “Oro” with director Alvin Yapan, it was explained to her that the production heads want to have a new set of cast for Culion.

“Ang kaibahan lang nito, siguro may lalim at saka mas may bigat ‘yong ganitong klaseng istorya at mas maselan siya in a way may mga kinu-kwento kayo ng mga pinagdaanan ng mga totoong tao,” she said.

Cabral also shared her first experience of having an executive producer who was very hands-on during the shoot unlike the typical set up she is used to.

She said that deep in her heart, she knew that Culion has a chance to be selected as an MMFF entry.

Cabral believes the movie has too much importance with the content of the movie for it not to be noticed.

“Yung MMFF kasi ngayon nakikita ko na magandang bagay dahil nahahati na, hindi lang puro mainstream type of films ang kinukuha nila. Kumukuha na rin sila ng independently produced films at saka yong hindi lang for entertainment na klase ng material na pelikula,” she said.

Liwag who plays the character of “Jaime”, Curtis-Smith’s pair, shared how overwhelming working with the whole team was.

“Sobrang overwhelming kasi story siya ni Ricky Lee at idi-direct siya ni Alvin Yapan. Nalaman ko pa na kasama si Ms. Iza, si Joem, si Jasmine at saka si Merryl. Grabe talaga yong feeling na makasama sila, sobrang privilege,” he said.

“Sabi ko nga, itong proyekto nito, pinagsama-sama talaga siya, maganda yong casting, yong istorya hindi lang story line lang ang maganda,” he added.

Aside from artists from the mainstream, the production team also got an actor who was born and raised in Culion. Jai Astor, who is now based in Manila passed the audition. She is playing as a volunteer “sano” or a person who is not infected with the disease.

“Part talaga ng dream ko na makasama sa movie, bonus na lang na naging part ako mismo ng kwento ng lugar namin. Sobrang nakakaproud at nakakataba ng puso. Nong dumating ako ron, nakaka-proud kasi yong mga taga-Culion, na-welcome ako at masaya sila na may isang taga-ron na kasama sa movie,” she said.

Why you should watch Culion

Astor is inviting all Palaweños to support and watch the movie as it will also serve as an eye-opener regarding the untold story of Culion as others still think that locals from the town still have leprosy.

She said that the movie is a labor of love where everyone who is part of the production bonded.

According to her the casts and crew had stayed on the island of Culion for 14 days to shoot the movie. The production team conducted the casting in June and started shooting in May.

Astor also mentioned that they had just finished editing for their international market.

They will also have a premiere night in Culion without yet any definite date in December to bring the movie to the locals. Some casts will also join in the premiere showing in Culion as they also want to go back after making friends with the locals of the town.

Sing invites Palaweños to watch the movie as it is for everyone in the province.

“Panoorin natin ito kasi kwento talaga ng Palawan ito and even if it is Culion, lahat apektado. Right now, even kami, ang dami na naming nagtatanong how to get to Culion, bago pumunta ng Culion, dadaan muna ng Coron. Lahat naman yon ay makikinabang talaga, this is like a provincial movie,” she said.

Sing said that their team is now thinking of other next possible movies they could start on after Culion. She said that they are eyeing historical dramas or anything that has advocacy.

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is one of the senior reporters of Palawan News. She covers agriculture, business, and different feature stories. Her interests are collecting empty bottles, aesthetic earrings, and anything that is color yellow.