How the surfer flick 'Apocalypse Child' is redefining Filipino cinema

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Apocalypse Child, from Filipino director Mario Cornejo, takes place in the beautiful surf town of Baler, where Francis Ford Coppola filmed his Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now. In the film, it’s said that when the crew took off in 1976, they left behind a surfboard, which led to the creation of surfing culture in the Philippines. The crew also left our main character Ford, who is believed to be the illegitimate son of Francis Ford Coppola.

Ford and his girlfriend spend their carefree days surfing and hanging out with his mother, who was only 14 when she gave birth to him. But when Ford’s childhood friend Rich brings his new fiancée home, the two men are forced to reconcile their broken relationship, rehashing decades-old trauma at the hands of Rich's father in twisted ways. Everyone is pulled down into the chaotic limbo, trying to find a comfort that has been snatched away from them.


Apocalypse Child, which premiered at the New York Asian Film Festival, isn't a typical mainstream Filipino movie. With a camera that never turns away from the cracks in the family and a dynamic female lead who isn’t afraid to face the truth and, more importantly, walk away, the film refuses to settle for a fairy-tale ending.

The lasting impact of an American film shoot on the town of Baler parallels the enduring legacy of Spanish and British colonialism. In one scene, Ford’s mother describes how the explosions created by the crew of Apocalypse Now were so powerful, they actually rerouted a river. Turns out, that's not the case.


“We talked about the landscape changing because of the explosions,which is not true,” Sid Lucero, who plays Ford in the movie, told me, debunking what I assumed to be true because damn, that mother can tell a good story. “But the point is, if you believe it, that’s kind of what it did to us.”

Lucero and his costar (and girlfriend) Annicka Dolonius, who plays Fiona, had just flown in the previous day and were ecstatic to be in New York City. As we entered a theater at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, she gasped in awe—the walls were lined with autographed portraits of film icons, but one in particular caught her eye. She ran over to the wall, where Sophia Coppola (Francis Ford's actual daughter) was hanging.

In our conversation Lucero spoke quickly and sometimes slipped into Tagalog before correcting himself and Dolonius, who is half-Filipino, was more deliberately and with no discernible accent. We talked about redefining Filipino cinema and why it’s sometimes better to believe those little myths we tell ourselves.

Everyone in the film has incredible chemistry. It felt real, comfortable. Why is that?


Lucero: In the very first scene, the director explained, "I just wanted to show the audience how comfortable you are with each other. It’s a relationship—you didn’t just meet." When he mentioned that, I was just like [he gasps]. That’s my frustration when it comes to Filipino films. They marry someone and then it’s like, you can feel that there’s boundaries there.

There’s no intimacy.

Lucero: There’s none.

I think for many American viewers, this might be the first foray into Filipino cinema. What do Filipino films typically look like, and why is this such a departure from what you’re used to?


Lucero: The look of the film alone. In Filipino cinema, they don’t really format it that way. I’ve heard some people watch it and say, “Yeah, it’s not a very Filipino film.” I’m like, “What do you mean?” They say, “It’s not catered for us.” Really? It’s a movie, anybody can watch.

The thing with mainstream Filipino movies is that it’s catered for Filipinos. It’s slapstick, it’s fantasy romance, things like that. It kind of sucks, but it’s okay because the rest of the world can relate with [Apocalypse Child] better. And that’s the whole point. What’s the point of telling a story if you’re just going to tell it to yourself?


What is a typical popular Filipino movie? Like textbook romance?

Dolonius: We love our romance. We like our romantic comedies. It’s difficult to say because it’s diverse. It’s split in half. You have the mainstream film, which is close to TV.


Lucero: It’s glossy, the camera doesn’t really help tell the story. It’s just fancy. "We have money, we have a crane." But why do you have a crane?

It’s just like flexing their cash.

Lucero: Exactly there’s no heart at all. They think they have heart in it.

Dolonius: They are getting better. Now they’re starting to fuse independent cinema with mainstream. Independent cinema is becoming much more widely known now.


Lucero: 10-15 years ago, the people working in the industry were born in the industry. But now you have people coming out of college with film degrees who do independent first and then delve into mainstream, and [the veterans] can’t help but respect what they’ve brought to the industry. So it’s slowly changing.

Dolonius: Do you think part of the change is because of the internet and YouTube?


Lucero: Yes, the internet, YouTube. The mainstream world thinks it won’t understand [independent film], but it’s not true. You go to their house, they live in a hut, but inside there’s like DVDs, computers, full theater system. [Laughs]

They really underestimate their audience over there.

Dolonius: We’re not as broken off and backwards as we think. We’re putting ourselves down a little bit.


Lucero: Too much. But now everyone is getting braver. More adventurous.

Dolonius: And more people I think are asking for more from Filipino film.

The premise of the film is that you’re dealing with the remnants of the filming of Apocalypse Now, both your character’s existence, which is just like how the country is dealing with the remnants of colonialism—is that just how it is there? Is that a normal thing, dealing with that past?


Dolonius: I would say, yes. We’re still very much…

Lucero: Scarred? Maybe not scarred…

Dolonius: It’s a huge part of the Filipino psyche. We’re huge on anything American. I love it, I’m like YES AMERICA.


Lucero: In the film, we talked about the landscape changing because of the explosions [from filming Apocalypse Now], which is not true, but the point is, if you believe it, that’s kind of what it did to us.

Dolonius: I never thought about it like that.

Lucero: That’s what it did. They left a surfboard, next thing you know we have surfers. That’s one of the good things. We have you. Or my character, sort of “halfies” [half-Philipino, half-European or American] living in the country. It’s a big effect—they really left a dent.


In the film, it’s easy for people to believe these myths. For example the mother character believes the myth about your character’s father. Do you think in general it’s easier to believe in those kinds of things instead of facing the truth?

Lucero: I think you can’t help but create truth for yourself to stay sane. You can do something really wrong to somebody unintentionally, but in your head you defend yourself in so many ways. That’s those myths. You don’t see things as they really are. That’s a problem. For example, in the relationship between Ford and the mother, even though he knows the truth about his father, he just let’s people believe it or do whatever because it’s easier that way. He’s not going to tell his mom, “Mom!” He’s not. How could he do that to her? It would destroy her.


Dolonius: I guess it just depends on the gravity of the myth maybe. Sometimes you need it. Just because the truth is a lot. It’s too much. Ideally you want to face it, but people are flawed. That’s the thing about this movie, these are flawed people, these are not people who you want to look up to. Hopefully these are reflections of the worst parts, the not-so-good parts of yourself. And maybe that’s the truth we should be looking at instead of telling ourselves that we’re good people all the time.

How much did you see yourself in your character?

[They laugh.]

Lucero: A lot. [He laughs]

Dolonius: Honestly there is a lot. There’s a lot of me in Fiona, but we’re totally separate. She has my physical scars, she has my physical tattoos, she looks like me, and we’d probably do some of the same things, but also there are some things that are very different.


Lucero: I feel the same way. I see myself a lot in my character. Especially Ford because we’re almost the same. He’s got a famous father in his own little land which is what happened to me when I was growing up. I come from a family of actors and I didn’t think I was going to be doing this. Growing up people know who your father is, they tease you in a different way. So I could see myself in Ford, but some of the decisions that he made, I’m never going to do. But I had to give him a reason to. I had to make it a decision I would make. Given the set of the film and how the director wanted it to happen. You can’t help but give up part of yourself, leave some fingerprint.

Dolonius: You’re so connected and it’s so infused, suffused. We’re different people but there’s so much of yourself in it. I can’t step out of my own head. You’re always going to have a part of yourself in there. I think it’s completely impossible to completely be another person, unless you’re crazy.


Lucero: Unless you’re these guys. [We’re in a room at full of autographed portraits of various stars like Michael Fassbender, Tilda Swinton, Jeff Goldblum.]

Unless you’re Daniel Day-Lewis.

Dolonius: Not even, I’m pretty sure even with these guys there’s part of them in there too. I’m pretty damn sure Daniel Day Lewis is half of each of his characters. I’m pretty… sure. [She's clearly not sure. We all laugh.]


Just trailing off. So, what do you want your audience to think or feel when they walk away from Apocalypse Child?

Lucero: For me it’s more for the Filipino people. Really. It’s about relationships, right? And in the Philippines the way they package relationships in films, and the way people look up to certain people, it’s really just fantasy. Shit happens, but it’s not like how it happens in the movies.


Ten out of ten movies, the couple that meets has children, their paths separate, they meet again as adults and they fall in love. And nothing happens and they just fall in love. This is the first time I’m actually seeing a Filipino film where the woman just goes, fuck this and walks out.

Dolonius: Fuck this, fuck you. I don’t need this shit.

Lucero: And you don’t see that. We are the [starts dramatically wailing] I LOVE YOU!


[Dolonius joins in on the wailing. They are both melodramatically sobbing.]

Dolonius: WHY?!


[We all laugh.]

Oh wow. Really dramatic.

Dolonius: It’s terrible. But I really like the idea that Mario had for this film. What are the stories you’re telling yourself? How are you defining yourself? What are you telling other people? I love that idea. I hope that when people watch this, maybe they won’t be so judgmental about the people on the screen. The characters are so flawed that people might be like these are terrible people. Yes they’re terrible people, but are you that much better? Who are you? What are you telling yourself about yourself? Who are you and what makes you so much better. How are you not flawed?


Lucero: And on a lighter note, maybe they’ll want to go to Baler.

Dolonius: Yeah, maybe they’ll want to try surfing.

Lucero: Meet a Fiona…

Dolonius: Do NOT shit on her.

Lucero: …And then she leaves you there.

The New York Asian Film Festival runs from June 22 and July 9, featuring submissions from all over East and Southeast Asia. Hosted by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Subway Cinema, the festival will screen 51 critically acclaimed films from China, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines.