PPP REVIEW: Signal Rock and a Hard Place

by Israel David
Aug 17, 2018
Signal Rock, starring Elora Españo (left) and Christian Bables, is being screened in cinemas until August 21, 2018.

Signal Rock is a deceptively simple film whose complications begin with its current emergence in the public consciousness.

This movie, which is directed by Chito Roño and written by Rody Vera, is being screened in cinemas until August 21, 2018.

It is released as an entry to the 2018 Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino, so to single it out as the excellent entry that it is should not be taken as a downgrading of the other entries.

To make it worse, the PPP follows yet another event, the older Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival, so audiences who already splurged in watching this year’s entries might be understandably reluctant to spend further on the current lineup. PPP also features previously unreleased films from earlier festivals—this time a more definite guarantee of jury approval, notwithstanding the Cinema Evaluation Board’s weirdly moralistic downgrading of a couple of entries.

In fact, some of the PPP entries are also regional films like Signal Rock—Tara Illenberger’s Iloilo-set High Tide and Arnel Barbarona’s Manobo tale Tu Pug Imatuy come to mind, as well as the only one I’ve seen of the lot, Khavn’s CEB-victimized Balangiga: Howling Wilderness, which like Signal Rock is also set in Samar.

A comparison of Balangiga and Signal Rock would be a useful place to start. Where Balangiga’s narrative enlarges on the incomprehensible historical trauma of genocidally motivated colonial warfare, Signal Rock demonstrates the impact that globalization has made on even a far-flung Third-World island.

Signal Rock is the director’s and writer’s second project set in Biri island, part of a municipality in Northern Samar—which makes it one of the Visayan islands closest to Luzon.


Their earlier Biri film, Badil (2013), featured a young man attending to his father’s unsavory (and ultimately bloody) vote-buying activities during an election period where the still-running mayor asks for support from his cohorts.

Intoy (Christian Bables), the Biri lad at the center of Signal Rock, is more recognizably provincial, by our usual cynical-urbane standards: laid-back, easy-going, content with helping everyone and indulging in occasional youthful hijinks (with an equally indulgent police chief making sure that he and his homies get their token share of punishment).

His initiation into worldliness, in more ways than one, occurs when he falls in love with a local lass, whose father regards him as unworthy for a prospective in-law.

Intoy’s naïveté catches him off-guard: he could have known the kind of future he’d be facing if he reflected on the struggles that his sister has been facing as the mistress of an abusive foreigner, forced to seek refuge in a foreign land, as well as the dilemma of his best friend, whose childhood sweetheart returns as the now-prosperous wife of an elderly Caucasian—upon which his friend is reduced to being his ex-girlfriend’s paramour.

Intoy’s epiphany, that the women of the town are being groomed to work for (and eventually be claimed by) overseas masters, is something that most Filipino intellectuals have known for some time. Signal Rock’s first singular achievement is in restoring the sting to this revelation, by allowing the kind of Filipino we used to know to be overcome by it.

That insight alone would have been enough to add depth to any number of romantic comedies (and you might find it unusual for me to claim here that Signal Rock is in fact, literally, a romantic comedy). But the director-writer team have a better treat in store: where the usual melodrama, even the long-drawn-out telenovelas, would bypass a bureaucratic process and get by with merely mentioning it, the movie delineates the process itself and draws dramatic tension out of it, as well as some light comedy, essential suspense, and insightful glimpses into small-town relationships. It even enables Intoy to venture into Manila’s talons of neon, thereby equating his character with that of Julio Madiaga in Lino Brocka’s Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag.


(If you will permit me an even more controversial digression here, I could set out to prove that Signal Rock is ideologically superior to Philippine cinema’s global critics’ favorite, just as Christian Bables's performance as Intoy will prove to be more enduring than Bembol Roco’s still-impressive Julio M. Unfortunately, these canonical concerns lie outside the purview of this review.)

The clue to understanding how the film can pull off the delightful hat trick of melding process, lead character, and community into one arresting narrative is in looking over the director’s background. I don’t refer to the fact that he happens to be a Samareño who acquired familiarity with the Philippine capital as well as with other global centers, or that his father was the longest-serving minister of Ferdinand Marcos’s martial-law administration while he oversaw the “alternative cinema” screening schedule of the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines.

Chito Roño is generally overlooked in accounts of still-active survivors of the Marcos-era Golden Age, partly because of the progressive sector’s eagerness to reject anyone associated with the regime, but also partly because he devoted himself to so-called “low” genres, specifically those dealing with sex, horror, lurid melodrama, and action films centered on women.

Those who bothered to look more closely into his output were rewarded with some of the most innovative attacks as well as rewarding performances in commercial cinema, in packages that weren’t burdened by the “prestige” imprint.

More than Badil, Signal Rock would be the equivalent of David Lynch abandoning his usual offbeat material and methods in order to do his appropriately titled 1999 film, The Straight Story. Yet the same creative and critical sensibility infuses Signal Rock’s “regular” world.

Intoy’s awakening to illicit relationships, for example, begins when he witnesses his friend resume his affair with his now-married girlfriend, and intensifies when a respectable businesswoman confides the paternity of her son. When he starts witnessing people in unusual situations, notably the town’s hotheaded slacker relaxing in the parish priest’s rectory, as well as a municipal official always eager to help him, he learns to practice discretion—a skill that comes in handy when he finally meets up with his girlfriend Rachel (Elora Españo) in the big city.


Roño’s directorial flourishes are more foregrounded in Signal Rock than they were in Badil, yet they remain unintrusive (as discreet as Intoy learns to be)—a sign of the filmmaker’s maturation.

In the first few scenes with the title object alone, we already see expert overlappings of image and sound so that more than one event transpires in single scenes; the first time Intoy visits the place alone, we hear the wind transformed into the sound of a woman weeping.

The movie is so full of these small touches that the only advisable response I can provide for a first screening is to sit back and take in the pleasure of a conglomeration of talents who love what they do and know how to go about making it happen.


Joel David is Professor for Cultural Studies at Inha University in Korea and the recipient of the Gawad Lingap Sining (Art Nurturer Prize) of the Filipino Arts & Cinema International Festival in San Francisco, California. He had formerly taught at the UP Film Institute, where he was founding Director. He holds a Ph.D. in Cinema Studies at New York University and maintains an archival blog titled Ámauteurish! (at https://amauteurish.com), which contains all his out-of-print books and articles on Philippine cinema, media, and culture.

Ed's Note: The "PEP Review" section carries the views of individual reviewers, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the PEP editorial staff.

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Signal Rock, starring Elora Españo (left) and Christian Bables, is being screened in cinemas until August 21, 2018.
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