“Apocalypse Child” – 2016 New York Asian Film Festival Review

Obfuscation is a common shortcut by filmmakers to lend their work a certain artistic cache. When it works, as in Alain Resnais’ “Last Year at Marienbad” (1961) or Alex Proyas’ “Dark City” (1998), it succeeds mainly because its creators doled out answers gradually over the film’s runtime, resulting in a purpose for all the mystery. Leaving the audience with more questions than answers does the film no good, and if all the secrecy adds up to nothing more than false promises, a viewing would be an exercise in frustration.

This last sentiment burned a hole through my brain as I watched Mario Cornejo’s “Apocalypse Child” (2015). The film is so beautifully shot, with some good acting and brimming with a score that is pure auditory delight, yet it falls apart a third of the way through.

On the sandy shores of a town in the Philippines made famous in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” (1979), Cornejo – with the help of Ike Avellana’s camerawork and Annicka Dolonius’ plaintive voice – opens with the notion that Baler is a mythical place wherein the inhabitants are themselves inherently special because of where they live.  Our main P.O.V. character Fiona (Dolonius) recites a few of the remarkable events that have occurred in the town, but it is her boyfriend Ford (Sid Lucero) who is the film’s titular Apocalypse Child. His mother Chona (Ana Abad Santos) believes that Ford’s biological father was indeed the famed filmmaker Coppola.

To Sid Lucero’s credit he could definitely pass as the director’s lookalike, but Ford doesn’t buy his mother’s story. And in truth, neither will anyone.  It’s obvious as this question of who Ford’s father is gets introduced quickly, but nothing is really done with it. Santos plays Chona as one part MILF and one part borderline delusional, so it’s nil to impossible to believe her anytime she talks about Ford’s “father.”

The main conflict is instead between Ford and an old friend, Rich (RK Bagatsing), childhood buddies who eventually had a falling out.  Cornejo and Monster Jimenez, the film’s screenwriters, tease us with what led to death of their friendship, but never offer anything satisfying. They dangle a conflict in front of the audience and don’t really pay it off. Ford and Rich are not friends at the start of the picture but then they are friends again, along the way doing some very odd and outright confusing things to get to that end scenario. Rich for some reason has a revenge scheme that involves him throwing his fiancée Serena (Gwen Zamora) at Ford so that he will sleep with her. Although Ford and Serena are aware of this, they still get into bed with one another. Add several subplots that are often left abandoned like Fiona and Ford’s relationship, Rich’s dead abusive father, and an oft-mentioned surfing competition, and you get a picture that is mostly just set-up.

What made this film much worse though was Bagatsing’s wooden performance, particularly in contrast to Dolonius who rightfully deserved the Gawad Urian and QCinema International Film Festival award for Best Actress. Bagatsing practically sleepwalks through the picture, wearing the same dumbstruck expression on his face and favoring a monotone voice. Even if he was a victim of abuse, as the film loves to keep mentioning, he should have a higher pulse rate than a comatose patient.

Ultimately “Apocalypse Child” is a mess, with a plot that goes nowhere and offers very little in the way of emotional connection – so much so, that when the identity of Ford’s father is finally revealed you just don’t care. At best, what this film amounts to is a tourism ad for Baler. That is the only thing Cornejo succeeds at with this picture.

“Apocalypse Child” screens at the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival on June 23 at 6 p.m.