CULION: #MMFF2019 Entry about LOVE, HOPE and the Island of No Return

Saturday, December 21, 2019

For the longest time, Leprosy or Hansen’s disease, ketong in Tagalog was a dreaded disease. People with the said disease, or even just suspected of having it, were avoided, even ridiculed and ostracized. 

CULION - More than a century ago, the gate served as a boundary between two worlds -- that of the “leproso” (leper) and that of the “sano” (clean). It warned that you’re about to enter a leper zone. Located at the northern tip of Palawan, the island of Culion used to be a leprosarium under the American commonwealth of the Philippines.

The municipality, by virtue of an Executive Order, was created for the sole purpose of segregating those afflicted with leprosy, which was then incurable.

Thousands were rounded up and exiled to the secluded island from different regions of the Philippines, the first few hundreds arriving in 1906. The colony ballooned to just short of 7,000 in 1933. It was only in 2006 that the island was declared leprosy-free by the World Health Organization.

The social stigma was horrible — Although Culion was “the largest and best known institution of its kind in the world, and beyond comparison in area and natural facilities,” scientific understanding at that time was still limited and so social ostracization based on myths and unscientific beliefs persisted.

This is why when I heard that there is a Metro Manila Film Festival 2019 entry CULION, I was so eager and interested to watch it.

Culion is one of the few selected movies to be shown in the up-coming Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) 2019. Written by Ricky Lee and directed by Alvin Yapan with cinematography by Neil Daza, Culion is a “passion project” that started two years ago and its inclusion at MMFF is already a huge victory for the team behind iOptions Productions, according to producer Shandii Bacolod.


In the 1940s, Anna, Doris, and Ditas are three patients afflicted with Hansen’s Disease (or widely known as leprosy) who live in Culion at a time when the disease is practically a life sentence. No cure has yet been found, and no one is allowed to leave.

You live and die there. It is why the place is called the “Island of No Return”.

Anna (Iza Calzado) never loses hope that soon a cure will be found, even when her baby is taken away from her. Doris (Jasmine Curtis-Smith) believes in the myth that a beautiful diwata will soon heal the place. Ditas (Meryll Soriano) keeps attempting to kill herself, helpless against the onslaught of memories from the outside world.

Together the three friends try to negotiate a life of stigma that seesaws between hope and despair, redefining their roles as women, mother, friend, and human being. In the end they prove that neither disease nor death can erase their humanity and their capacity to endure.

For some time now, I don't set any expectation whenever I watch a film so that I will not be disappointed if I didn't like the movie. I did it this time with Culion. I was one of the lucky few who were able to watch the media screening and I'm really glad I did. It was a riveting story about the past. A story that will make you feel agonized because of what the people with leprosy experienced, not just with their disease but being far away from their loved ones. Imagine being thrown into a far away island without any real means on how to contact them just by letter and since land and sea transportation that time was poor, it was very difficult or impossible for many families of the detained or abducted to visit their loved ones. 

The movie depicts the unimaginable pain and agony of Filipinos afflicted with leprosy (or Hansen’s Disease). Ostracized by the society and abandoned by their loved ones, they are legally exiled from all over the Philippines and even overseas and quarantined in this “land of the living dead” where they are left to die long before a cure was found.

My most favorite and note-worthy scenes were from Joem Bascon, Iza Calzado, Meryll Soriano and of course the appearance of John Lloyd Cruz. No words can describe how epic their scenes were. You don't need long painful lines, their presence says it all. Their eyes and how their actions molded their roles perfectly. It was indeed something every Filipino should watch. 

I'm honored that I was able to witness a movie this bold showcasing one of the dark ages in the Philippine history. In the times of sorrow, struggle, pain and longing of the people in Culion who suffered leprosy, HOPE, FAITH, RESILIENCE AND LOVE prevailed. 

CULION is recommended to watch this coming MMFF 2019. Don't miss this movie starting December 25. 

Also check out the video interviews of some of the cast of CULION:
Jasmine Curtis-Smith on her big chance on winning an award this MMFF2019

Mike Liwag and Nico Locco also shared their experiences on filming Culion.

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