In Film as in War, There's What Remains in Its Wake: 'Apocalypse Child'
Apocalypse Child is a wonderful slice-of-life drama that thrives in the space between truth and fiction.
Apocalypse ChildDirector: Mario Cornejo
Cast: Ana Abad-Santos, Archie Alemania, RK Bagatsing
“I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” Lt. Kilgore (Robert Duvall) famously says in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979). In war there’s unfortunate collateral damage, and the premise behind Mario Cornejo's Apocalypse Child (2015) is that there are also unintentional casualties when a film crew sets up shop on location, then leaves.
Coppola’s classic Vietnam War (or American War) movie was partially shot in Baler, Philippines, where in that film soldiers were shown surfing in Baler Bay. That’s also the setting for Apocalypse Child, an engaging drama whose principal character is Ford (Sid Lucero), named, his mother has told everyone, for his filmmaking father. Is that a fact? A fiction? Somewhere in-between?
Her son -- the focus of the film -- is a middle-aged surf bum who earns a meager living by teaching others how to catch a wave. Sporting a beard as black and full as his namesake’s, he is, as a more successful childhood friend labels him, a “surfing philosopher” with few cares in the world other than food, drink, surfing, smoking, and sex.
Ford says he doesn’t believe his mother, Chona (Ana Abad-Santos) when she says that Coppola is his father. Isn’t it more likely his father was an anonymous crew member? Yet he does enjoy the mythic elevation to local celebrity that her story gives him. She tells a good story, whether it’s this one or her mythologizing takes on Ford’s rare loss in the annual surfing competition.
Apocalypse Child is billed as “a Mario & Monster Show”, but don’t be fooled by that self-effacing, circus-style credit line. Like Chona, writer-director Mario Cornejo and writer-producer Monster Jimenez know how to tell a good story. In this 2015 indie film they begin with that solid premise and employ a lyrical cinematographic style to craft a narrative that holds our attention -- not only because of the main dramatic question we hope will be answered, but because of the characters themselves.
Their interactions with one another are compelling, whether we’re watching Ford’s mom bang on the window to laughingly interrupt him as he has torrid sex with a teenaged surfing student named Fiona (Annicka Dolonius), or listening to them talk while they smoke pot together, or being startled as Ford finishes a toast in memory of his childhood friend’s father by throwing his glass at a portrait of the man. Indeed, there’s a lot going on beneath the surface, but the filmmakers wisely let viewers figure most things out for themselves.
The dialogue is so organic and guarded yet frank that you forget Mario and Monster are behind it. You get caught up in the relationships that have a mostly easy air about them, despite the tensions beneath the surface that occasionally bubble up. When Ford thinks his mother has been drinking too much and tosses her last beer into the bushes, she snaps, “You’re an asshole.” “You’re a whore,” he responds. “I wish I gave you up for adoption,” she says. But in a matter of moments, the two are going inside together. They’ve said what they had to, and those words haven’t changed their relationship. Indeed, such casual honesty is at the core of their and other relationships; annoyance, anger, confusion, or resentment are expressed with candor or even playfulness.
“How old are you, seriously?” Fiona asks Ford. “You’re friends with the congressman, and, like, my friends live in dorms.” Fiona and Ford make a good couple, but this is no romance. Ford is who he is, and he always was better with women than Rich (RK Bagatsing), his appropriately named childhood friend, who comes from the wealthiest family in Baler and who pays Ford to teach his fiancée, Serena, how to surf. Before they begin, Serena (Gwen Zamora) tells Ford that Rich warned her he would try to have sex with her and later adds, “I don’t know what would disappoint him more, if we slept together or if we didn’t.”
It's artful, creating a structure and unfolding a mystery so subtly that it feels natural. Only a few things in this narrative seem contrived. Chona was only 14-years-old when she had Ford, and we’re told Serena was the same age when she gave birth. That and similar parallels obviously swim against the current of spontaneity, as do a few loaded lines of dialogue. “This is where they blew up stuff in Apocalypse Now,” Ford tells Fiona. “Many say the river shifted because of all that.” Yet, though the explosion and river are presented as metaphors, it’s mostly left to viewers to speculate, For what?
Likewise, a big reveal depends on asynchronous sound to show viewers a discrepancy between Chona’s story and what really happened. Yet, it’s handled with the same dreamlike visuals as the water-level shots that reinforce the easy-living atmosphere of the place and the mythic feel it has -- all of which remind us of a tantalizing opening sequence featuring close-ups of waves lapping with these subtitles:
When a tsunami hit Baler in 1735, only seven families escaped its wrath and were able to find higher ground. These families travelled up a mountain through a secret tunnel that was maintained by a hermit. During the Philippine Revolution in 1898, Spanish soldiers holed up in the old church. They survived an 11-month siege with supplies given in secret by their Filipina girlfriends. When the film ‘Apocalypse Now’ shot the surfing scenes here in 1976 the production left a surfboard behind, floating in the ocean. A fisherman pulled it out of the sea and sold it to five local boys who took turns learning how to surf, eventually becoming the first Filipino surfing champions. These are the myths of Baler. And they’re absolutely 50% true.
Beautifully and unobtrusively filmed, Apocalypse Child could have been as heavy-handed as a whodunit. But it’s far more successful as part mystery. “Why do you all keep making excuses for him?” Fiona asks, “I don’t understand why you have to make everything so mystical.” In Baler, that simple question has an answer that seems equally simple, yet somehow elusive.
Apocalypse Child is a wonderful slice-of-life drama that thrives in the space between truth and fiction. It's enriched by layers of nuance and made memorable by the characters themselves. Named “Best Picture” at Toronto’s Reel Asian International Film Festival, it's released in the US on DVD on 18 April with no bonus features.
James Plath teaches film, journalism, and American literature at Illinois Wesleyan University and also writes movie reviews for his blog, FamilyHomeTheater.com.