Apocalypse Child is a 2015 film directed and co-written by Mario Cornejo, and it tells the story of Ford (Sid Lucero), a surfing champion from Baler who might be the bastard child of Francis Ford Coppola. This happy-go-lucky surfer goes through a reckoning of his past actions—and inactions—when his childhood friend Rich (RK Bagatsing) comes back to town with resentment and a new fiancée, Serena (Gwen Zamora). They evade talking about their problems by focusing on the simple pleasures of Baler: surfing, alcohol, weed, and sex. Things start to heat up when Ford teaches Serena how to surf and they spend more time together.
It’s not really a plot-centric affair. Even with the early introduction of Rich and Serena, the film itself takes a long time to get going, satisfied with a slower, leisurely pace that seems to match the scenery Baler provides. They mostly tell stories about their lives while drinking or smoking weed, the enjoyment never feeling real as the undercurrent of resentment pulses through even the smallest of interactions.
When it does finally boil over, a lot of it feels unsatisfying, possibly by design. It does seem in-character that Ford, as someone who never had to take responsibility for his own actions, wouldn’t know how to apologize for mistakes he made. Still, while his apology to Rich feels sincere enough, Ford never gets called out for how he treats the women in his life or how little he seems to care about their emotional well-being.
This treatment feels particularly egregious because the film provides all this pain for the two main female characters, Fiona (Annicka Dolonius) and Serena, to feel, and yet they are treated as unimportant in comparison to Ford being forced to take responsibility for his actions. It especially appears as though the story shortchanged the pain that Fiona feels as Ford seems to have no sympathy at all for her struggles. The film itself also sidelines her in favor of the love triangle between Rich, Ford, and Serena. While everyone else in the film is dealing with past actions, Fiona is dealing with present painful experiences that no one seems to care about enough. At least her resolution, while as unsatisfying as everything else, allows her to leave all this drama behind.
As compelling as the drama can get, the film does work better as an allegory on colonialism. Many things have been written about the themes of this film, which seems to allude to how Filipino culture has been created from different leftovers of former colonizers (Spaniards and Americans, primarily). There is a lot to see here about that, yet the best way that the film shows this is in how the citizens of Baler (Ford and Chona especially) are still living under the specter of Apocalypse Now decades after the filming wrapped. It’s a subtle yet damning indictment of how little Baler’s culture has progressed, since a lot of it seems like it’s stuck in the 1970s. This set-up provides the framework for any reading of the film as a post-colonial study.
As a film that lives and dies by its acting, it is good to note that the performances are all great. Ana Abad Santos’ Chona is a stand-out because of how she never lets up on the forced cheer that her character seems accustomed to having, even in moments where we see the cracks of her inner pain and turmoil. However, the most excellent of this talented cast is Annicka Dolonius’ portrayal of Fiona. She is all spunk and confidence, and her feelings of betrayal as Ford pushes her away and replaces her with Serena is fascinating to watch. Dolonius embodies the fears and anxieties of the character without resorting to over-the-top histrionics.
The film is gorgeous to watch, with the film’s cinematographer Ike Avellana capturing Baler like a town lost in time, stuck in the outskirts of society’s modernization, filled with the breathtaking natural beauty of trees and mountains and beaches for miles and miles. In conjunction with the sound design by Corinne de san Jose, the film creates this immersive experience that makes you feel like you are in Baler, swimming in those waters and feeling the heat-soaked exhaustion that the main characters must be feeling. Shooting on location really did wonders for the look of the film.
Stories about people (whether they are adolescent or just in a state of perpetual adolescence) growing up and learning to take responsibility for their actions are plentiful in the history of cinema, but the way Apocalypse Child approaches the subject allows for a broader, more interesting reading of the film as an allegory about Filipino culture and society. Regardless of how you might read the film and its themes, it is an attractive and intriguing experience that comes off as both grand and personal in its scale. However you might take the story, there is an impeccable craft in the acting and filmmaking that seems to dig up something raw and real behind the subterfuge that the characters of the film hide behind.
Apocalypse Child is streaming on Netflix.