Apocalypse Child is a film filled throughout with short, seemingly filler shots of characters enjoying the famous waves of Baler. These are images of a sunny, slow-mo disposition, the frames filled with luscious visuals of surf and skin. It is beautiful enough that the film is worth watching even if it didn’t have a narrative, as a music video would.
The visual motif of sand and sea is appropriate for a film that has consistently been called a refreshing contribution to Philippine cinema. (Even its playful, almost absurd trailer is wonderfully unique.) Its distinctive flow and flavor washes over its viewers, then withdraws and drains out with the steady rhythm of water. Seeing Apocalypse Child, for any Filipino cinephile, is almost like the experience of seeing a marvelous underwater world for the first time.
(Or so I imagine, I haven’t learned how to swim yet. But it doesn’t matter—lead actor Sid Lucero, who plays the role of a surfing champion, didn’t really know how to surf yet when he acted in the film.)
I usually distance myself, my identity as a person denoted by a first-person pronoun, when writing about films, but I’m trying to emphasize a point: Apocalypse Child is perhaps the most personal Filipino film of recent years. Not personal in the sense that I relate deeply to it, but personal in how utterly focused and nuanced the story is on persons and their relationships.
Consider the premise of the film. Ford (Sid Lucero) is a surfing instructor in Baler who was brought up by his young mother Chona (Ana Abad Santos) with the belief that he is the illegitimate child of renowned director Francis Ford Coppola. Legend goes that the surfing culture in Baler was born when the crew of the 1979 film Apocalypse Now (directed by Coppola) left behind surfing boards as they wrapped up production in town.
When this legend is told in a voice-over at the beginning of the film, it is followed with the disclaimer that it is probably only that—a legend. We could expect the question of Ford’s true parentage to be a driving force of the film’s plot, but Apocalypse Child tackles this premise with the urgency of a turtle, with the purpose of a tortoise. It dilly-dallies on this question, and we soon figure out that the film is concerned not with plot, but only with its characters. It is not about separating fact from fiction; it is fiction unconcerned with fact, or at least its priority.
Apocalypse Child is not a documentary, and it does not tackle the truthfulness of the legend that surfing in Baler was created in the wake of Apocalypse Now—a tidbit of history that, thinking about it, is likely to be more legendary than factual, but which is nevertheless passed around in media as a given truth.
In a way, it is the perfect parallel for the film’s focus and structure. Apocalypse Child is summed up as a “relationship drama”, and this is perhaps the most concise categorization of this film. It starts with Ford and his fascinating origin story, but it is, in full, a well-balanced intrigue between six characters: Ford, Fiona (Annicka Dolonius), Rich (RK Bagatsing), Serena (Gwen Zamora), Chona, and Jordan (Archie Alemania). (It is noteworthy that only these six characters have speaking lines in the entire length of Apocalypse Child, further evidence for this film’s deceivingly laid-back but truly well-thought-out creation.) The veracity of the story of Ford’s origin, much like the veracity of the roots of Baler surfing, is not the point: it is whatever comes after, how people deal with the realities that develop, how they live and love and be mad and what makes them do so.
Not to say that the film does not employ some clever narrative devices. A scene comes to mind: when Ford and Serena were exploring the terrestrial sights of Baler, they come across an ant-hill, a punso. Serena notices how Ford circumvents the ant-hill, and is surprised that he’s superstitious. Ford denies it, dares the superstitious belief warning against disrespecting a punso, and crushes the ant-hill with his foot. The scene soon proves to be a critical point in the story, and the relationships among all its characters take a turn for the worse from this point onwards.
But, being the character story that this film is, we should not pay too much attention to plot details or risk frustration. Apocalypse Child confuses with the manner in which it hints and teases at a controversial past event that leads to the tensions of the present, but this past is never fully disclosed. Look for answers and you will be disappointed; again, what matters is what happens to the people, what effects on persons past events may have, be they legendary or factual.
Ultimately, much like any film or story inhabited by interesting characters, Apocalypse Child derives its greatest pleasures by exploring the brokenness of people. Each of its population of six characters are broken in their own way, motivated by greed or recklessness or some other deficiency of character, yet rounded out by glimpses of generosity, forgiveness, and redemption.
The film, in telling this tale, soaks up the laid-back, go-with-the-flow ethos of the surfing town of Baler. Like a wave breaking onto a beach, it approaches with a swell of dramatic tensions; then crashes, tumbles over, and ends on a carefree mood as it flows out, smoothly, naturally, without any further worries.
The featured image for this article is a screen capture from the official film trailer on YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q5NUjN2zm7w