Review: ‘Water Lemon’ (2015)

A young man with Asperger’s, his esteemed mother, and other characters populate this contemplative small-town drama.

Surreal scene from Water Lemon (2015), showing two characters chatting through computers on a coastal rock under a sunset.

In Oggs Cruz’s roundup of 2015 Filipino films (Rappler, 12 best Filipino films of 2015), Lemuel Lorca’s Water Lemon does not make it into the top 12, but it receives this passing ‘also worth watching’ citation:

From QCinema International Film Festival, there is Lem Lorca’s Water Lemon, a somber examination of rural boredom…

It is quite a misleading summary. True, Water Lemon is a story about small-town (rural) blues, but it is neither thoroughly somber, nor is it largely about boredom. (Perhaps Cruz found the film a little too slow for his taste, which would be unfortunate.) True, Lemuel Lorca’s latest work has its share of extended shots and slow gazes—but it never comes close to the painful uneventfulness of long shots in such epic works as (for example) Lav Diaz’s Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan. It is seasoned with several lighthearted moments, and succeeds in squeezing genuine laughs out of its audience. Like the small-town characters populating its story, who in their solitude are brooding, but in social gatherings turn lively and humorous, Water Lemon has both contemplative and hilarious moments.

The rural community that Water Lemon explores is the coastal community of Mauban, on the coast of the province of Quezon. This is director Lorca’s hometown. The location is so prominently billed in this film that we are led to think of its characters, primarily, as inhabitants of this coastal town, and only secondarily do we explore their individual differences. But the film does not disappoint, because the variety and relationships of its characters, in fact, is its greatest beauty.

In the film’s first scene we meet Filemón Arboleda (Jun-Jun Quintana), a bright young man who suffers Asperger’s syndrome, and insultingly nicknamed “Lemon” by his townspeople. This, plus his obsession with water (he perpetually mumbles about sea levels, climate change, and weather developments), gives the work its title; but while certainly interesting, his character is only a first among equals in the film’s ensemble. His mother, Pina (Tessie Tomas), is widely respected by Mauban’s society, but silently suffers Filemón’s condition, and the recent death of her husband.

Tessie Tomas and Jun-Jun Quintana as Pina and Filemón in Water Lemon (2015), dining in an old family home
Tessie Tomas and Jun-Jun Quintana as Pina and Filemón in Water Lemon (2015). Screen capture from the trailer,

Filemón is obsessively and amusingly pursued by the colorful Bertha (Meryll Soriano), his kababatà (childhood friend). Bertha does not mind the town’s whispering about Filemón as she seeks his affections, in the same way she confidently carries her eye-popping costumes. But she cannot quite understand his special qualities.

Filemón is interested more in those who would understand his concerns about water, the oceans and the weather; he finds comfort in the Internet, chatting with a Seychellois woman. The computer rental shop he frequents is run by Maritess (Alessandra de Rossi), who is also obsessed with Internet chatrooms where she looks for her own Prince Charming to take her away from Mauban—like her mother who has long ago left the country for greener pastures abroad. Filemón befriends Maritess’s Lolo (Grandfather) Umê, a retired engineer. When Lolo Umê nonchalantly remarks that he understands Filemón’s concerns about the town’s water supply, we see the extraordinary young man smile for the first and last time in the entire film—and Lolo Umê becomes the only soul in Mauban who succeeds in connecting with Filemón.

It is noteworthy that all the characters in Water Lemon are middle-class and educated. They cut across two generations divided by globalization and other issues of the modern world, and the film dutifully compares and contrasts their hopes and concerns.

This is another cause for praise for Water Lemon: not only is it a satisfying tale on the level of a social and family drama (with the slightest hint of rom-com, if we may venture), it is also, at a deeper level, an exploration of larger social and political issues. Like any good realist work, it is highly conscious of its characters’ and setting’s context. These concerns serve as an undercurrent all throughout the film, lying unspoken behind the desire to escape the town, lurking underneath the connection between island nations as far away from each other as the Philippines and the Seychelles. The most explicit political comment in Water Lemon is a remark about the lack of legal divorce in the country, mentioned during a delightfully orchestrated and pivotal scene that brings together all the characters of the story.

This scene, taking place at a handaan (banquet) hosted by Lolo Umê and Maritess near the end of the film, divides the plot into two acts. While the first is an exposition of the town’s status quo, of the small-town conditions its characters inhabit and somewhat despise, the second is a narrative of the various methods by which these characters perform their great escape. Director Lemuel Lorca himself acknowledges this act of fleeing as the motivation and meaning behind Maritess, Lolo Umê, and Filemón’s ultimate destinies.

The outside world and the city

While Water Lemon is mainly a film about rural living, it is firmly situated within a wider world. The connection to the outside is facilitated by science and technology. In the first few scenes of the film, we meet Filemón and listen to his obsessions with rising sea levels and disturbing weather patterns brought by climate change. (He measures the rising sea at Mauban’s coast, then comes home to report his worrying findings to his unimpressed mother Pina, who acknowledges his brilliance in science but reprimands him for flunking in hygiene, and sends him off to take a shower.) Filemón is almost too brilliant for his townmates, and he yearns for someone who will take his scientific claims seriously. As with Maritess and the other youths of his town, he finds solace and escape on the Internet.

This obsession with chatrooms leads to the most remarkable shot of the film: we see Filemón and his Seychellois chatmate on a rock formation jutting out onto the sea, under an orange sky, facing each other but still separated by their computer screens, and they do not meet eye-to-eye. It is a breathtaking visual metaphor for the nature of cyberspace and the relationships it sustains: idealized, beautiful, but never quite capturing the intimacy of reality.

Surreal scene from Water Lemon (2015), showing two characters chatting through computers on a coastal rock under a sunset.
Screen capture from the Water Lemon (2015) trailer,

Speaking of reality, when I watched the film at Cine Adarna at U.P. in Quezon City, there was a brief Q&A with the director and editor. After that, a group approached Lorca, and I overheard one of the girls introduce herself as Lorca’s province-mate. She said she was from Sariaya town, to Lorca’s amusement.

It amused me too, coming from the film, because people who are actually able to ‘escape’ their small home towns, upon arriving in the city, seem to get restless and determined to find ways to connect back home; to the town that formed them, and the town that is still, for some of its residents, a perfectly fine place to spend their lives in.

In the film, when Pina is asked by a tricycle driver why she didn’t go to the capital city after finishing her education so that she could earn a better life, she asks back:

Why can’t we be happy where we are? Why do we have to find our space in Manila; why can’t we stay put?

(To digress: it was a little surprising how friendly the tricycle drivers are in the film to Pina. But I remembered that in sufficiently small towns, tricycle and jeepney drivers have a habit of recognizing the residents, especially the respected professionals and civil servants.)

Indeed, why are people so restless and always dreaming of a faster, more exciting life?

The people of Mauban and Quezon Province undoubtedly rejoice in having a film feature their locale (such a Pinoy thing, to take pride in anything local getting a share of the spotlight). However, I think that, ultimately, Water Lemon is for us city-dwellers, most of whom are unable to imagine living the steady rhythm of small town life. We who live in the city, we who bask in the comforts of the metropolis while drowning in its congestion and other horrors—how are we supposed to feel, how are we supposed to answer Pina’s questions?


Water Lemon won the Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Screenplay awards at the 2015 QCinema International Film Festival, for Tessie Tomas, Lou Veloso, and Lilit Reyes, respectively. It was also nominated for the Best Picture, Best Director (Lemuel Lorca), and Best Actor (Jun-Jun Quintana) categories.


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