Once on an island
Three women, three lives, one island—or, as one of the characters put it: “a colony within a colony.”
“Culion” brings to life the leprosarium’s history in the last decade or so before World War II.
Established in 1907 under the American colonial administration, Culion was meant to serve as a reservation where people battling Hansen’s disease, better known throughout history as leprosy, could be isolated from the general population and live there until a cure was discovered, or for the rest of their lives.
The three women who form “Culion’s” heart are Ana (Iza Calzado), a strong-willed nurse assistant whose parents had abandoned her when she was still a child; Ditas (Meryll Soriano), who had been a teacher and engaged to a loving suitor until she left him waiting fruitlessly at the altar for fear of having her leprosy discovered; and Doris (Jasmine Curtis Smith), born in Culion of leprous parents who teaches English to the children in the colony.
Around them swirl the other personalities of the colony, including ‘Nay Mameng whose own afflicted parents convinced her to devote her life as the chief nurse of Culion.
Suzette Ranillo endows Mameng with a fiery, grating personality unbending in her rules and policies, but imbued with sympathy for the fate of her patients and wards.
Then there’s Kanor (Joem Bascon), Ana’s lover and father of their love child; and a surprising brief but powerful cameo by John Lloyd Cruz as Ditas’ lover Greg, whose eyes say volumes about his yearning for Ditas and the realization that they could never be together in the outside world.
“Culion” is not a perfect movie, as both box-office receipts and its shutout from the Metro Manila Film Festival awards indicate. But in the swirl of hysterical comedies and uber-commercial offerings, it at least deserves a sympathetic, understanding viewing.
After all, the movie tells the story of a brief period in our past when social ostracism and ignorance of science combined to doom a population to isolation and invisibility. Despite the restraints on the people’s enjoyment of life, however, “Culion” is also a celebration of human resilience and stubborn faith. Ana never stops believing that she would one day escape the island and live among outsiders. After her infant daughter is taken away from her and Kanor fruitlessly searches for the girl’s whereabouts, Ana persists in her dream, begging Kanor for another chance to have a child with him.
After Doris’ young life is shattered, Ditas takes up the reins and carries on with her young friend’s mission as a teacher.
Director Alvin Yapan starts off the movie with a rather somnolent pace, but as events rain blows and rainbows on the lives of the three friends, the movie picks up pace and builds tension. Writer Ricky Lee exercises restraint and uses silence to fill the words unsaid. But despite Ditas’ periodic rants against the colonizers, the movie remains at heart human and grounded.
Producers Peter and Gilie Sing of iOptions Ventures shared that they first learned about Culion during a visit to the former leper colony and a tour of the island’s museum. So moved were they by the history and the intimate personal stories of Culion’s occupants that they resolved then and there to make a movie about the courageous folk who bore the winds of stigma and fear with dignity and, toward the film’s close, even generosity of spirit.
It’s a little astonishing to discover that it was only in 2006 that the World Health Organization declared Culion leprosy-free. The discovery of the disease’s origin—a bacterial infection that affects the nerves—and the discovery of an effective antidote served to remove much of the fear and loathing.
Information that, like tuberculosis, the disease is spread through airborne water droplets has removed much of the stigma as well. As with other diseases, ignorance served to spread leprosy much faster than the bacteria did.
But, as “Culion’s” promotional material suggests, love is infectious. And as the movie itself proves, shedding light on this educational, historical and human story goes a long way toward not just creating sympathy for those who lived through this time and in this place, but also for creating awareness of hidden injustices and silent persecutions to this day.
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