Signal Rock is a deceptively simple film whose complications begin with its current emergence in the public consciousness. It is released as an entry to the Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino, so to single it out as the excellent entry that it is should not be taken as a downgrading of the other entries. To make matters worse, the PPP follows yet another event, the older Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival, so audiences who already splurged in watching this year’s entries might be understandably reluctant to spend further on the current (and pricier) lineup. PPP also features previously unreleased films from earlier festivals – this time a more definite guarantee of jury approval, notwithstanding the Cinema Evaluation Board’s weirdly moralistic downgrading of a couple of aspirants.
In fact, some of the PPP entries are also regional films like Signal Rock – Tara Illenberger’s Iloilo-set High Tide and Arnel Barbarona’s Manobo tale Tu Pug Imatuy come to mind, as well as the only one I’ve seen of the lot, Khavn’s CEB-victimized Balangiga: Howling Wilderness, which like Signal Rock is also set in Samar. A comparison of Balangiga and Signal Rock would be a useful place to start then. Where Balangiga’s narrative enlarges on the incomprehensible historical trauma of genocidally motivated colonial warfare, Signal Rock demonstrates the impact that globalization has made on even a far-flung Third-World island.
The movie is the director’s and writer’s second project set in Biri island, part of a municipality in Northern Samar – which makes it one of the Visayan islands closest to Luzon. Their earlier Biri film, Badil (2013), featured a young man attending to his father’s unsavory (and ultimately bloody) vote-buying activities during an election period where the still-running mayor asks for support from his cohorts. Intoy, the Biri lad at the center of Signal Rock, is more recognizably provincial, by our usual cynical-urbane standards: laid-back, easy-going, content with helping everyone and indulging in occasional youthful hijinks, with an equally indulgent police chief making sure that he and his homies get their token share of punishment.
His initiation into worldliness, in more ways than one, occurs when he falls in love with a local lass, whose father regards him as unworthy for a prospective in-law. Intoy’s naïveté catches himself off-guard: he could have known the kind of future he’d be facing if he reflected on the troubles that his sister had been struggling with as an abusive foreigner’s mistress, forced to seek refuge by herself in a foreign land. The lesson becomes even more pronounced in the dilemma of his best friend, whose childhood sweetheart returns as the now-prosperous wife of an elderly Caucasian, upon which his still-besotted friend is reduced to being his ex-girlfriend’s paramour. Intoy’s epiphany, that the women of the town are being groomed to work for – and eventually be claimed by – overseas masters, is something that most Filipino intellectuals have known for some time. Signal Rock’s first singular achievement is in restoring the sting to this revelation, by allowing the kind of Filipino we used to know to be overcome by it.
That insight alone would have been enough to add depth to any number of romantic comedies (and you might find it unusual for me to claim here that Signal Rock is, literally, a romantic comedy – more conventional in fact that the contemporary mainstream versions whose terms were set four years ago by That Thing Called Tadhana, Antoinette Jadaone’s indie-crossover hit). But the director-writer team have a better treat in store: where the usual melodrama, even the long-drawn-out telenovelas, would bypass a bureaucratic process and get by with merely mentioning it, the movie delineates the process itself and draws dramatic tension out of it, as well as some light comedy, essential suspense, and insightful glimpses into small-town relationships. Here the filmmakers manage to traverse the tricky depiction of desperation and corruption among the destitute without falling into the trap of poverty porn, via the still-rare culturalist strategy of refusing to pass judgment on any of the characters and by partaking of any instance in their celebration of their existence, no matter how paltry or seemingly pathetic.
This approach even enables them to engage in reflexive touches, as when the plot follows Intoy’s venture into Manila’s talons of neon, thereby equating his character with that of Julio Madiaga in Lino Brocka’s Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag. In this particular instance, Signal Rock signifies its ideological superiority over Philippine cinema’s global critics’ favorite, just as Christian Bables’s performance as Intoy will prove to be more enduring than Bembol Roco’s still-impressive Julio M.: Maynila may remain one of the most technically accomplished Filipino film epics ever made, but none of its identity problems (sexism, homophobia, racial and anti-lumpen prejudice) mars Signal Rock’s engagement with a wide variety of working-class and lumpenprole types. A mother’s hard-heartedness toward her husband is explained via his past cruelty and negligence toward her; the said husband (Intoy’s father) is able to draw on his limited English-language expertise in order to redeem his daughter’s own standing as an overseas resident; a hotheaded fratricidal slacker retains enough of a conscience to surrender to authorities thanks to his close relationship with the parish priest, with whom he may or may not be lovers; and so on. The movie’s emphasis on mostly male characters derives not from a desire to heroize them (least of all Intoy), but from the circumstantial result of women abandoning the community in order to earn a living for everyone via foreign labor.
The clue to understanding how the film can pull off the delightful hat trick of melding process, lead character, and community into one arresting narrative is in looking over the director’s background. I don’t refer to the fact that he happens to be a Samareño who acquired familiarity with the Philippine capital as well as with other global centers, or that his father was the longest-serving minister of Ferdinand Marcos’s martial-law administration while he oversaw the “alternative cinema” screening schedule of the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines. Chito Roño is generally overlooked in accounts of still-active survivors of the Marcos-era Golden Age, partly because of the progressive sector’s eagerness to reject anyone associated with the regime, but also partly because he devoted himself to so-called “low” genres, specifically those dealing with sex, horror, lurid melodrama, and action films centered on women.
Those who bothered to look more closely into his output were rewarded with some of the most innovative attacks as well as delectable performances in commercial cinema, in packages that weren’t burdened by the “prestige” imprint. More than Badil, Signal Rock would be the equivalent of David Lynch abandoning his usual offbeat material and methods in order to do his appropriately titled 1999 film, The Straight Story. Yet the same creative and critical sensibility infuses Signal Rock’s “regular” world. Intoy’s awakening to illicit relationships, for example, begins when he witnesses his friend resume his affair with his now-married girlfriend, and intensifies when the town mayor confides in him the paternity of his illegitimate son. When he starts witnessing people in similarly unexpected and possibly incriminating situations, he learns to practice discretion – a skill that comes in handy when he finally meets up with his girlfriend in the big city.
Roño’s directorial flourishes are more foregrounded in Signal Rock than they were in Badil, yet they remain unintrusive (as discreet as Intoy learns to be) – a sign of the filmmaker’s maturation. In the first few scenes with the title object alone, we already see expert overlappings of image and sound so that more than one event transpires in single scenes; the first time Intoy visits the place by himself, we hear the wind transformed into the sound of a woman weeping. The movie is so full of these throwaway gems that the only advisable response I can provide for a first screening is to sit back and take in the pleasure of a conglomeration of talents who love what they do and know how to go about making it happen.
 Interestingly, the similarly named Signal Hill, in St. John’s, Newfoundland, was named for its setting as the site of the first wireless transatlantic transmission, when Guglielmo Marconi awaited a signal from England on December 12, 1901. See Diana Lambdin Meyer, “Canada’s Vital Role in the Communications Revolution” (September 2, 2017).
[First published August 17, 2018, in the Philippine Entertainment Portal]