LOS ANGELES ASIAN AMERICAN FILM FESTIVAL 2021 REVIEW! There’s an extended shot of a microwave oven in Martin Edralin’s low-key drama, Islands, its timer counting down the seconds until it dings. Some may find the shot representative of the introverted protagonist’s monotonous, circuitous, claustrophobic existence. Others might feel like the writer/director is jerking their chain. A few will surely be bored to death, counting down the seconds along with the timer. That disparity of reaction must be Edralin’s intent – or maybe not, maybe he’s not a provocateur at all. Perhaps he couldn’t care less about a reaction, and Islands is a raw, personal account of loneliness and grief, and he sees himself in that microwave.
The deeply introverted, middle-aged janitor Joshua (Rogelio Balagtas) lives with his parents, Alma (Vangie Alcasid) and Reynaldo (Esteban Comilang), who are deeply religious Filipino immigrants. While mom and dad are living their best lives – exercising, attending dance classes – Joshua barely speaks or goes out. His days are comprised of buying lottery tickets, avoiding coworkers, working out on his treadmill, and copious masturbating. To make matters worse, his brother, Paolo (Pablo S.J. Quiogue), is successful and married with children. When Joshua’s marital status is brought up during family dinner, cheeky mom, Alma, waves it off, “Him? He’s not going to give me grandchildren. He’s never even had a girlfriend.”
Joshua prays for a partner and kids, but then his mom passes away, leaving him to care for his amnesiac, grieving dad. With the arrival of his cousin, Marisol (Sheila Lotuaco), a caregiver, Joshua starts to come out of his shell. She moves in, helps out with Reynaldo, and teaches Joshua how to cook. It doesn’t take long for our hapless hero to fall for her. Edralin doesn’t provide any clear-cut resolutions, though Islands does end on a hopeful note, the predictability of which miraculously doesn’t diminish its impact.
“…his mom passes away, leaving him to care for his amnesiac, grieving dad.”
The filmmaker is fascinated by the seemingly mundane. He captures the little details: the difference between Joshua’s clumsy cooking and his mom’s (or Marisol’s) sure hand, the painful process of his father taking a shower, each micro-expression on his characters’ faces. It’s the smallest moments that shine the brightest, such as Marisol’s birthday gift to Joshua – a handwritten card, which he secretly rereads before sleep.
The leisurely tone is counterbalanced by Lotuaco’s affectionate and deeply touching performance as Marisol. She personifies Edralin’s chief theme of human kindness with the way she handles each tricky sequence, such as accepting Joshua’s invitation to stay at his place, or taking care of his dad, or ultimately taking care of him. Balagtas excels as Joshua, but it’s a performance where you have to read between the lines, as his character represents a man so passive, so overwhelmed by incompetence, there may be no way out. Alcasid and Comilang are simply splendid, the former bringing a much-needed zest to the proceedings, the latter imbuing it with heart.
In a way, Islands is like Judd Apatow’s 40-Year-Old Virgin, minus the eccentric, scatological humor. It, too, deals with a man past his prime, a man so immersed in loneliness that only a drastic event could potentially set him on a path to salvation. Unlike Apatow, Edralin doesn’t hammer any points home. Islands is as effective, familiar, and quiet as a microwave.
"…affectionate and deeply touching..."