Canadian director Martin Edralin’s latest project, Islands is not only a glimpse at the immigrant experience in Canada, but a meditation on family and love, and the complicated connections that sustain us.
In Islands, we meet Joshua (Rogelio Balagtas), a Filipino-Canadian man in his 40s caring for his aging parents, Alma (Vangie Alcasid) and Reynaldo (Esteban Comilang). When his mother dies, he enlists the help of his cousin Marisol (Sheila Lotuaco) to aid him in caring for his father who is completely lost without his spouse of so many years.
There are so many elements of Islands that are completely relatable to many viewers. First, any child who has had the experience of caring for aging and ailing parents will recognize the profound heartbreak that comes with the loss of one parent. Watching Reynaldo’s deterioration following his wife’s death is heartbreaking to watch, as his mental and physical health respond so viscerally to the loss of this relationship that was such a bulwark of his life.
Any adult child living with their parents will recognize the daily struggles and realities will instantly see themselves in Joshua. Director Edralin described wanting to make a cultural commentary on the archetype of the ‘maiden aunt’, but wanted to have his story instead follow a man in this position. Joshua so clearly wants to be a good son and do right by his parents, and it’s clear he genuinely cares for them. However, we also see the conflict he faces daily, catering to his parents’ needs while wanting to forge his own independent life. His frustration with his relationship status is palpable and all too understandable.
The strength of this movie is really in the performances. Balagtas and Lotuaco especially are just phenomenal together. After the death of his mother, Joshua has to ask himself what he really wants in his life. This leads him to express misplaced romantic feelings for his cousin. However, it’s clear he’s not actually in love with her in a weird way, but just that he has recognized that he is at the point in his life where it’s time to break out of the role he has been assigned, as the family caregiver, with secondary needs to those of the rest of his family. This particular story was handled in such a sensitive way, and it really showcased the strengths of the actors themselves that they were able to make it work so beautifully.
Edralin also made sure to comment on the exploitation of Filipino workers around the world. There is a chilling and heartbreaking scene where Marisol describes the abuse which she has suffered at the hands of her employer who she had left. She described having to beg for her passport to be able to travel to her aunt’s funeral in Canada. It is such a stark reality for so many workers around the globe, and while it was commendable Edralin addressed it in his story, it would have been even better to see further development of this particular storyline.
The movie gives us a near-perfect ending. Watching Joshua see Marisol off to continue the rest of her life, while finally coming into his own was storytelling at its best. The dancing scene, calling back all the times Joshua accompanied his parents to community dance lessons, was such a complete full circle moment and the audience just knows Joshua is going to be okay and that his life is just beginning.
Islands is ultimately a quietly heart-touching tribute to family, love and relationships. It’s a glimpse into family life that is both grounded and relatable. The immigrant context in which the story is told only adds to the richness in a layered story that is a tribute to the human spirit. Hopefully this is only the beginning of what this director and these actors have in store, as they clearly have much to offer.
Reel Asian is a Toronto film festival with year-round programming highlighting Asian and Diaspora stories.