Before she moved to Winnipeg in 2014, Sheila Lotuaco planned her future in Paranaque, a city in Metro Manila, Philippines. When she applied to university years earlier, her first choice was to study dentistry, a career decision her parents encouraged. Her second choice was to study theatre.

Before she moved to Winnipeg in 2014, Sheila Lotuaco planned her future in Paranaque, a city in Metro Manila, Philippines. When she applied to university years earlier, her first choice was to study dentistry, a career decision her parents encouraged. Her second choice was to study theatre.

In her heart, her second choice was always her first.

But she became a dentist and a nurse, a pragmatic decision that seemed more logical, and less uncertain, than a career on stage or screen. Her parents were pleased, yet for Lotuaco, there was still a sliver of hope that she’d get a chance to act, and if she ever got that chance, she was sure she could deliver.

"I always wondered: how would it feel to do a movie?" Lotuaco says. "To tell you the truth, it had always been my childhood dream to star in one."

Who hasn’t had that dream? A vision of a different life? A second path? A new existence in the same world, granted by a cosmic coin-flip of fate? Most have. Fewer have had it happen. Lotuaco has.

How to watch

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Free Press readers can see the film by streaming it through the Reel Asian website. Tickets are available at wfp.to/islands. More information is available at reelasian.com.

In 2019, scrolling through Facebook, Lotuaco saw a post from a college friend in the Philippines, with information for a casting call for a new Canadian film. The friend’s cousin, Martin Edralin, was the writer and director, and he was conducting a search for an actress between 35 and 45 years old to star in his film, Islands.

She grabbed her phone, texting her friend. "Maybe I could try this," wrote Lotuaco, who after emigrating to Canada had to start from scratch and is working as a health-care aide and toward becoming a nurse. "Go, go, go for it!"

The mother of two sent in her profile. A headshot, some information about who she was. Within 20 minutes, she got a response.

Director Martin Edralin. (Supplied / Island)

Director Martin Edralin. (Supplied / Island)

Edralin explained the film’s premise: Joshua is a Filipino man nearing 50 in Scarborough, Ont., who lives with his aging parents. Painfully shy, he’s desperate for love, but too nervous to seek it out. When his mother dies, Joshua is left to care for his father Reynaldo (played with complex simplicity by Toronto’s Esteban Comilang) whose dementia seems to have sprung from nowhere after his wife’s death.

With the cracks of the family emerging after the removal of their matriarchal keystone, Marisol, Joshua’s first cousin, arrives, setting in motion a complicated coming-of-age for her cousin, whose prayers for health, guidance and companionship are answered by Marisol, a competent and diligent caregiver who needs care, too.

Lotuaco connected with the role in many ways: her career in health care made Marisol feel like an extension of herself, along with the intricacies of immigration and sacrifice for the sake of family. Marisol felt real to her, because she was.

In her Transcona basement, Lotuaco filmed an audition tape, with her husband reading for Joshua. A few Skype calls with Edralin and the casting director later, she was asked to do a chemistry read with Rogelio Balagtas, who was vying for the role of Joshua.

Local actors Sheila Lotuaco (Marisol) and Rogelio Balagtas (Joshua) find a late-in-life connection. (Supplied)

Local actors Sheila Lotuaco (Marisol) and Rogelio Balagtas (Joshua) find a late-in-life connection. (Supplied)

Coincidentally, all roads pointed to Winnipeg in Edralin’s search for his Marisol and his Joshua: Balagtas, an accomplished stage and commercial actor originally from Zamboanga del Norte, moved to Winnipeg from the Philippines in 2013. Edralin was struck by the chemistry on Skype.

"Then I flew out there to do a rehearsal with them and it was the same thing," he told Filmmaker Magazine. "In an emotional scene they would cry, and we’d take it a different direction and they would keep crying. So they were actually quite comfortable when we got on set and I was also amazed how they could perform and hit their marks for the camera. They could take adjustments, change lines of dialogue, and still land where they had to. It was weird for me to see how proficient they were without having any training at all."

Both were cast, and embarked on a six-week shoot in Toronto to star in the first feature film in which they’d ever appeared.

 


 

The resulting work makes a familiar story feel brand new, thanks in large part to Edralin’s restrained direction and the naturalistic acting of the leading trio, who embody the push and pull of a domestic struggle unbound by time, place, or background.

But it’s the specificity of the characters and their Filipino-Canadian identities that unlocks the film’s drama. Edralin told Filmmaker that the film was meant to be shot in the Philippines. But when Canadian funding came through, it moved to Scarborough, which put the film’s characters — each lost in their own way — in a new context that illuminated their experiences.

Islands is the story of a lonely Filipino man in Ontario whose father develops dementia after his wife dies. (Supplied)

Islands is the story of a lonely Filipino man in Ontario whose father develops dementia after his wife dies. (Supplied)

"I realized this is actually what I’ve lived," he said. That’s why Esteban Comilang is so revelatory in his characterization of Reynaldo.

Comilang, who just turned 80, moved to Canada in 1975, and has the knowledge and life experience to understand both Joshua and Reynaldo, and even Marisol. He’s in good health, still golfing, but has seen the effects of dementia in friends and acquaintances, and is aware of the tension of aging.

"The role was myself. I am Reynaldo," says Comilang, who was the lead actor in the University of the Philippines Diliman Mobile Theatre and has appeared in dozens of films, commercials and television shows.

“This is the role I have been waiting for.” ‐ Esteban Comilang

As a student of the Method — an acting technique that requires trying to fully inhabit a character — and a die-hard fan of Marlon Brando, Tom Hanks and James Dean, Comilang took on the role with great attention to detail.

"For me, the best education in acting is being out there, observing human nature. At this stage of my life, I get it, and so being Reynaldo gave me so much and resonated so much in me, in my family, in Filipino culture," he said. "We have a culture where we don’t let anyone but family look after ourselves. Being an immigrant here, in Canada, with my children being raised here, it’s an entirely different culture."

Joshua (Rogelio Balagtas) takes a senior's line-dancing class. (Supplied)

Joshua (Rogelio Balagtas) takes a senior's line-dancing class. (Supplied)

Throughout the film, Comilang hardly says a word, but he says a lot. His eyes shift at exactly the right moment, always, and he looks at once like a child and a grandfather. He spits out Joshua’s dinner, because it tastes worse than his wife’s, unable to swallow even one bite. He needs help in the bathroom, but doesn’t co-operate. He is talked about and around by others, even while he’s sitting right there.

"This," he says, "is the role I have been waiting for."

He has waited for the role for reasons unrelated to talent. Filipino culture is largely untapped in the cinema outside the Philippines, Edralin told Filmmaker. "Everybody knows Filipinos, but nobody knows who we really are," he said. "Especially when you compare us to other Asian cultures. People have some understanding of Chinese culture, or Japanese, or Korean. There are obviously Filipino filmmakers, but most of them are from the Philippines and they’re always very arthouse."

But Comilang says it’s a universal story of aging and yearning: not true just for Filipino culture, but of cultures worldwide. Still, "it’s very seldom my ethnicity is being picked as a role in Canadian films," he adds.

Winnipeg actor Rogelio Balagtas prays with his parents as the lonely Joshua in Islands. (Supplied)

Winnipeg actor Rogelio Balagtas prays with his parents as the lonely Joshua in Islands. (Supplied)

Islands proves why that should not be the case. Because of who wrote and directed it, and because of its stars, it is an assured, controlled debut that maintains throughout a palpable honesty rather than a strained veneer of truth. For that truth, Balagtas was awarded a special jury award for breakthrough performance at the 2021 South By Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas.

On Nov. 10, Islands will open Toronto’s Reel Asian Film Festival, streaming online and showing at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Bloor Street, where Lotuaco is headed to see her work.

"It will be the first time I see myself on the big screen," she says.

A dream, realized.

ben.waldman@freepress.mb.ca

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Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman
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Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.