This week, I’ve been putting the spotlight on the 2021 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival (LAAPFF), which runs through October 2. Islands is the first feature film by Martin Edralin, a Toronto-based filmmaker who served as director, writer, and producer. His film focuses on Joshua (Rogelio Balagtas), a shy Filipino man who is turning 50 years old. Joshua is caring for his senior parents and holding a job successfully until a personal tragedy strikes.
Edralin joined me on Zoom to discuss cultural and social issues in Islands, how designing sets came together, and the reactions he’s noted at screenings so far.
There’s a lot of Filipino food in your film. What’s your favorite Filipino dish?
Sinagang. That’s an easy one! What’s yours?
Pansit and Filipino barbecue! What creative freedom did you enjoy by expanding from the film short format to now your first feature film?
There was a lot of learning. The hardest thing for me was tracking story: how something happens in one part of the story and how that affects something else that happened before or after. Making sure an audience is going to understand what’s happening. It’s a simple film, but there are a lot of subtle things that are going to impact the way the story is received.
I felt like I had more space and room to play with things… to sit in shots or moments and not have to constantly keep the story going forward because of a short run time. At the same time, it felt like a lot of time to fill and make sure an audience is engaged and can follow the story.
I love the scene when they hold the family gathering and Esteban Comilang, the father, is dressed in an Elvis outfit. Was that already in the script before you cast him?
I knew that he was an Elvis impersonator. I don’t remember where in the process the Elvis thing came in. With this movie, we definitely wanted to have some Spanish or Latin flavor and also some American flavor. That’s what Filipino culture is. I think we had other American influence[s] in the film, but once we started considering Steve to play Reynaldo, it was an obvious choice to do that. I also thought it was interesting to have that character as someone who had a life with flair, dance, and singing. [Then] we see him at this stage of his life and his health. It’s such a contrast to who Joshua’s character is.
I was struck by the character Marisol and the perspective she brought about caregivers. What do you appreciate about what Sheila Lotuaco brought to that aspect of the role?
She is a caregiver and knows the work. She didn’t have the same experience as the character did. I think she’s only worked in Canada and doesn’t have experience in the Middle East or other places where a lot of caregivers face abuse. I was doing research for another film that I was writing. When I make a film, I start throwing everything in that I’m thinking, feeling, or experiencing. All of the research I did about [what] caregivers go through in other parts of the world really struck me. I wanted to find a way to comment on it, which was a pretty small way, but I felt that it had to be in the movie.
How would you describe your approach as a director, especially in filming Joshua as a shy person? Even in the quiet moments, there was a lot to pick out about him.
It’s something that I think just sort of evolved in my filmmaking. It was never something that I really planned. My short films were like this, too. It probably comes from the kind of films I like to watch. I think also early on, I’ve worked mostly with non-professional actors. [Their] range is usually limited in comparison with professional actors. Sometimes I’ve found that to get a scene or to get a moment, it was easier to do it through framing or camera movement and just observe the characters. Sometimes it says more than dialogue does, as you’ve said. I prefer a meditative sort of feel.
What was an aspect of Filipino culture you enjoyed revisiting?
It was probably the house. That’s the core and a lot of that was our production designer who has a Greek background, but she did a lot a lot of research and talked with a lot of people. She went through my family photo albums, and a lot of the stuff in the house was taken from my parents and the parents of the producer who is also Filipino-Canadian. It was really fun to compile all these things. The production designer took everything and barred us from going into the house.
When we [finally] went in, it felt a lot like the home I lived in when I was younger, or like my grandparents’ house. Seeing it on screen, I’m glad that a lot of Filipinos who saw the film say the same thing. It felt so authentic, even to the cast. We brought the cast in a day or two before filming so they could understand the layout of the house. The production designer was very clear in wanting to show them where the spoons, the forks, and the patisse were.
Tell us more about the line dancing parts.
The line dancing may be [another] of my favorite thing[s]. I was going to senior dance class. My mom does them, too. There’s a lot about Toronto or the greater Toronto area. I was trying to email them because I wanted to find older cast [members]. No one would get back to me. They wouldn’t respond to my messages or answer the phone. I would just pop in.
This one particular class in the movie is a real class; those are the real dancers, except for our actors. The first time I went there, I was in tears. I always cry when I see a group of older people dancing. I’ve filmed corporate videos for a ballet school here that does dance activities with seniors. I find it heartwarming. Right away, I needed to convince these people to be in the movie.
We didn’t find any cast from there but we got them to agree to be in the movie [as themselves]. They were really into it. I provided the music and someone there choreographed the music. The national anthem was something they really did, too. I thought it was important. Having the Canadian anthem with the seniors, to me, was [about] trying to make a point that these immigrants are also Canadians.
What’s been a big takeaway from this film as you prepare for your next projects?
It takes a really long time for me to write and plan a shoot. At some point, something clicks and then everything goes really fast and becomes clear to me in this process; maybe it’s because I’m still learning, or maybe this is the way I make movies. I think having a feature that has [been] this well received has made me more confident in my process. It’s something I’m finding right now as I’m writing two features. I just seem to understand plot better. I wouldn’t say plot was never my strong point.
As a director, my strength was probably in framing and finding these moments in shots that are what my narratives are hung on. I think in making this film, I seem to understand how to make a plot dynamic. I’ve also learned how humor can be used in drama to both heighten the drama, but also to make a story more fun to write, shoot, and watch. My short films were quite heavy and there wasn’t a drop of humor in them.
Where do you see your film within contemporary Asian cinema?
I haven’t seen many movies like this: it’s of an older generation. Our lead character is 50. It’s about him and his senior parents. The only thing I can think of is the [Yasujirō] Ozu films where there’s a lot of family and generational stories. I can’t think of anything more contemporary. It feels like a large majority of films are targeted to young adults or younger, at least in North America. It doesn’t seem like there are a lot of films made particularly for older adults, which is probably different in Europe or other parts of the world.
What I [found] interesting at the SXSW premiere [was] it’s a lot of younger people, second generations or later, of Filipino immigrant families that seem to be gravitating towards it. Not that we’ve exploited an older Filipino audience yet—because they’re not really coming to film festivals—but it does seem like younger people are thirsty for our culture or something that reminds us of our youth and our families. Older Filipinos or Filipino immigrants might not feel the connection the same way because they’ve lived through it. I feel like as I get older, I am more and more curious to see Filipino films or art in general. As older generations pass, these are the things that connect us to who we are and who we remember ourselves to be.
For more information about Islands, visit the LAAPFF website.