By the end of the Academy Awards Foreign Language category viewing season, several people, including Academy voters, knowing that I had already seen 81 of the 87 entries, began asking me which were my favorites. Some of them were well-known: Cold War from Poland, Capernaum from Lebanon and Roma from Mexico. But when I added that I liked Signal Rock from the Philippines, I drew blank stares. Not one Academy voter with whom I spoke had seen the film.
Each foreign language entry is guaranteed one showing at one of the two Academy theaters in Beverly Hills and Hollywood. This year’s new rules require voters in the Foreign Language category to see any twelve films. So, to gain attention, the promoters of the different films pay to arrange extra screenings, some accompanied by receptions, and some of these including lavish sit-down meals. Cold War is distributed by Amazon, Capernaum by Sony and Roma by Netflix, so you can be certain that large numbers of voters in the Foreign Language division saw them. Not so Signal Rock, which has not won commercial release outside the Philippines. I saw it at the Asian World Film Festival in Culver City, California.
Signal Rock takes place in the 1990s in a remote corner of an island where the only place one can obtain a cell phone signal is on a rocky crag overlooking the ocean. The story revolves around Intoy (Christian Bables), a young man who knows everyone and tries to help whomever he can. Intoy is no goody-two-shoes; occasionally he and his friends drink too much, steal minor things and spend the night in jail. But basically, he is a good guy.
Like many Filipino women from low-income families, Intoy’s sister, Vicky, has gone abroad and hooked up with a foreigner, in her case a man from Finland. They have a baby together. But her lover has become abusive. She seeks sanctuary in a Catholic church, but the authorities turn her in to the police and take charge of her daughter. She will lose custody of the child unless she can prove that, back home, she has the financial means to support her. In reality, she has no such resources.
However, Intoy, invoking the spirit of bayanihan, or community, convinces many members of the village to create a narrative of Vicky as an active entrepreneur with a solid nest egg and a stable income. Then, the family takes a treacherous boat journey to present their case to a visiting diplomat from Finland.
There is a lot more going on in Signal Rock. For example, Intoy’s own romantic relationship is broken up when his girlfriend’s parents send her away to try to earn money in a bar in the big city. And his family’s financial security is severely threatened when Vicky can no longer send money home from Finland to help them. Director Chito S. Roño even throws in a confusing murder that the film could have done without. But the message of people coming together to help one member of their community (whom, by the way, we never see, but only know through her voice on the phone) outweighs the film’s flaws.