“Family is family, I can’t just say no” a young woman tells her boyfriend in response to his angry outburst on discovering that, like all the young women round these parts, she’s being dispatched to another part of the country to work in a bar. Inspired by true events in the ‘90s, Chito S. Roño’s Signal Rock situates itself in an idyllic fishing community left behind by the modern world like a lonely rock pool after the tide has pulled out. A microcosm of the nation itself, the island has become used to its transitory status as a conduit between two worlds, dependent on those who leave for its survival while the young men rendered incongruously obsolete have little more to do than battle their feelings of resentment and powerlessness.
Our hero, Intoy (Christian Bables), is the youngest son of the Abakan family, charged like so many young men with responsibility over technical things – in this case, maintaining the mobile phone which is the only point of contact that they have with oldest daughter Vicky who is supporting them all while working overseas in Finland. Remote as it is, the only place you can get a signal on the island is by climbing to the top of a rocky outcrop so communication has to be carefully planned in advance. This becomes a particular problem when Intoy discovers that the reason the money from Vicky hasn’t been coming through is that her relationship with a Finnish man with whom she has a small daughter is falling apart because he is both abusive and adulterous. As her daughter Sofia was born in Finland, Vicky fears that her boyfriend will try to seize custody and prevent her returning home to her family. Intoy, a fiercely protective brother, is not about to let that happen and sets about mobilising the community to hatch a plan to ensure Vicky and Sofia come home safely.
Despite Intoy’s protective instincts, the rest of the family’s relationship with Vicky is ambivalent. Oldest son Joaquin (Arnold Reyes), one of many resentful middle-aged men left on the island with not much to do, endlessly complains about the lack of ready money from his sister which he claims he needs to buy a motorbike in order to work. Joaquin also resents the shame of Vicky’s out of wedlock pregnancy, while the parents are still a little put out about the financial sacrifices they had to make in order for Vicky to achieve her “dream” of going abroad.
In order to sell the fantasy that Vicky comes from a wealthy family in the Philippines which is perfectly well equipped to support herself and her daughter, the Abakans are forced to confront their longstanding family issues. Intoy’s parents have been estranged for some time with his father technically living in a shed outside the main house, apparently loathed by his wife who claims the youngest two children are a result of marital rape. Another product of the patriarchal society, Intoy’s parents apparently eloped at a young age so that his mother could escape a marriage arranged by her father, only for the relationship to sour when Intoy’s dad lost his job at an American-run factory causing his wife to become disillusioned with his ordinariness.
Little seems to have changed in the last 30 years in that the lives of women are still largely dictated by the whims of their fathers. Vicky may have made a free choice to go abroad, but seeing as work is easier to come by for women, it is the norm for girls of the island to be sent away while the boys remain home alone. While dealing with his sister’s plight, Intoy is also facing the inevitable heartbreak of losing his girlfriend Rachel whose father has arranged for her to work in a bar in the city. As Intoy points out, from the parents’ point of view bar work is a pathway to finding a rich foreign husband – like Gina, another young woman from the village, who is returning home to celebrate her marriage to an elderly German (official now that his divorce has come through). Hardly pausing at the dockside, Gina introduces her former lover as a “cousin” before whispering in his ear that her feelings haven’t changed and she hopes to bring him to Germany for a better life after the old man snuffs it.
Intoy makes a kind of living on the island running errands for older people and acting as an MC during village celebrations, but as there is no real work round here and all the girls are gone, the young men largely spend their time playing basketball and getting into fights. They resent being forced to live off their sisters and seeing the women they love promised to other men, but have no other option than to make uneasy peace with their lack of possibilities. Intoy battles against his baser emotions, remaining kind and cheerful as he convinces his friends and neighbours to help him forge documents that imply his sister owns property while cosying up to the local mayor who hopes to hang on to power at the next election by convincing his wife to stand as a candidate.
Intoy alone is desperate to preserve the integrity of his family, even when spread across continents, standing out on Signal Rock as a kind of beacon left behind solely to convey information from one point to another. Having helped his sister, however, he discovers the depths of her resentment in her embarrassment at the idea of returning home after receiving the help of so many people. He loses his temper, unable to understand his sister’s rejection of everything he has worked so to protect at great cost to himself. Even so, Intoy manages to maintain his cheerfulness and desire to help others, sinking back into island life with his customary stoicism even if mildly troubled by a bargain he may have committed to without fully comprehending its implications. An ambivalent depiction of idyllic island life built on the back of female exploitation and entrenched patriarchy, Signal Rock nevertheless finds finds hope in community spirit and in its hero’s essential goodness.
Original trailer (English subtitles)