Barely a year ago, the tandem of director Joel Lamangan and screenwriter Bonifacio Ilagan brought us the courageous political thriller Dukot (Desaparecidos), an account of forced disappearances of the “enemies” of the government. This year, the duo reunites for another politically charged drama.
Sigwa tackles the First Quarter Storm (FQS), a period of student revolt from January to March of 1970 wherein people’s marches and heavy picketing took place to oust former president Ferdinand Marcos from public office. In an attempt to suppress the rebellion, the riot police used brute force to disperse the demonstrators. FQS is said to be one of the reasons why Marcos declared Martial Law two years after.
The film begins with the arrival of Dolly (Dawn Zulueta), a Fil-Am journalist who documented the student activism in Manila back in 1970. After being deported in 1975 because of her ties with communist groups, she returns to the Philippines to find her daughter who is supposed to be dead. In her search, she reconnects with her old friends from the FQS movement. It’s interesting to see the changes these student activists have undergone after 35 years. Rading (Jaime Pebanco) is still an activist at heart, Cita (Zsa Zsa Padilla) joined the guerilla forces, Azon (Gina Alajar) took refuge in a far-flung province, and Oliver (Tirso Cruz III), the “defender of the status quo”, is now working for the administration.
Their stories unfold through a series of non-linear flashbacks showing us what happened during the First Quarter Storm and the tumultuous years after it. Like any other martial law epic, there are mandatory torture scenes and rape sequences. The men are treated like human punching bags, while the women are treated like masochistic hookers. But none of it is gritty enough to be repulsive or emotionally affecting. Even the rally dispersal scenes are too tame to make a lasting effect.
Lamangan, dubbed as the “Festival King”, is a fixture in the Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF). He megged five Mano Po installments, twoDesperadas films, and a number of melodramas such as Filipinas, Aishite Imasu 1941, and Deathrow. This year, Lamangan dips his toes in the country’s premiere independent film festival. Sigwa is Lamangan’s entry in the Director’s Showcase category of Cinemalaya alongside Mario O’ Hara’sAng Paglilitis ni Andres Bonifacio, Mark Meilly’s Donor, Gil Portes’s Two Funerals, and Joselito Altarejos’s Pink Halo-Halo.
Lamangan brings the glitter of mainstream filmmaking to Cinemalaya through his all-star cast. We’re so used to seeing these well-known actors and actresses play the same characters on TV that it’s refreshing to see them take on more challenging roles. Sigwa’s cast can be considered as one of the best acting ensembles that graced Cinemalaya.
The younger generation of student activists is played by Megan Young as Dolly, Jay Aquitania as Rading, Pauleen Luna as Cita, Lovi Poe as Azon, Marvin Agustin as Oliver, and Allen Dizon as Eddie. The younger actors display sheer tenacity. There is fire in their eyes and angst in their heart. Their acting verges on passionate and compelling to over-the-top and all-over-the-place. Among the six, Marvin is a clear stand-out. He is often criticized for overacting, but Marvin’s overacting works perfectly for his role as Oliver.
If the young stars are ferocious but rough around the edges, the veteran actors are polished and pitch-perfect. Dawn is convincing as a hopefulbalikbayan mother longing for her daughter. Her fake American accent gets in the way though. Gina and Jaime nailed their roles with aplomb. Their slightest gestures reveal hidden emotions and suppressed pains. But it is Zsa Zsa and Tirso who stole the show. Their scenes are explosive and exhilarating. Lamangan should have given them more screen time than Dawn.
Zsa Zsa’s conviction is negated by Tirso’s cynicism. Their war of words and clash of ideas are full of gravitas that will make the audience contemplate the social and political climate of the country. Is the era of communism a long forgotten past? Now that the Marcos regime is vanquished, isn’t it time to wave the white flag and put the revolution to rest? There are no easy answers. It is up to the audience, left with their own judgment, to evaluate the opposing ideas eloquently presented.
It is such a shame that the weighty issues were discussed only at the tail end of the film. Sigwa could have been a more compelling film if they shifted the focus from the human drama (i.e. Dolly’s reunion with her daughter) to the social dynamics of the story. It might be a conscious decision on the filmmaker’s part to play it safe to be more palatable to the general public, and that’s understandable. But for a film that is meant to commemorate 40 years of civil unrest, I wish it had more balls.