It took Dolly (Dawn Zuleuta) 35 years to return to the Philippines. Back then, she was a wide eyed optimist visiting her parent’s motherland for the first time. She also believed that well meaning people like her could fight a feeble system and change the world. Several years later, she has returned for a more compelling reason; one that took her back to that tumultuous era. In the early seventies, she hurriedly escaped the clutches of Martial Law quite scathed and dazed, leaving a daughter under the care of Azon (Gina Alajar). In the crossfire of warring ideologies, many have perished. Including her child, or so she thought. But a common friend recently tells her that the child is alive.
At the height of an oppressive dictatorship, young idealist Dolly (Megan Young) – a junior correspondent of a US magazine - is welcomed by a group of student activists who ushered her into the ideals of their advocacy. She meets student leader Oliver (Marvin Agustin) and his girlfriend Cita (Pauleen Luna); the persevering Azon (Lovi Poe) and the dependable Rading (Jay Aquitania); then there’s the restrained Eddie (Allen Dizon) with whom Dolly gets into a relationship. With adequate fervor and high-mindedness, the group soon finds themselves joining the underground movement bent on toppling an oppressive government.
But each member is deliberately captured. The ladies are raped; the guys are subjected to hellish tortures until their souls have all been beaten to a pulp, providing names and whereabouts of their other comrades. Meanwhile, Dolly’s been recovered by the authorities who have been informed that she’s an American citizen, giving her the privilege to abandon her group’s cause and fly back to America while everyone else faces a bleak future.
But 35 years have changed people. Dolly has chosen to live a solitary life. Oliver (Tirso Cruz III) has joined the government, acting as the presidential spokes person, while Cita (Oliver’s former girl friend, this time played by Zsa Zsa Padilla) has risen in the ranks of the left-leaning revolutionary group. She has in fact become their supreme leader. Dolly has required the help of Oliver, now in the position of finding people, to locate Azon (Gina Alajar) who was left with Dolly’s child at the height of the insurgency. Dolly’s pursuit has unraveled strife anchored by their past. Is her daughter still alive? Will she ever find her?
Joel Lamangan’s “Sigwa” (Storm) is a harrowing journey that follows the lives of student activists with ponderous tenacity. On the foreground is a mother’s search for her child, but it’s merely a device used to introduce us to the characters. Though compelling and thematically clamorous, the focus wavers from too much detail. This isochronous storytelling tends to provide a less cohesive work, denying the material to soar. That’s always the plight of a material with a multitude of climaxes, thus the story eventually plateaus. This is not saying that Lamangan’s “Sigwa” is an insignificant material. It in fact deserves to be seen and remembered.
Megan Young and Dawn Zulueta competently link the past and the future with honest portrayals as Dolly. Marvin Agustin delivers one of the most emotionally distressing depiction of a torture victim. While his tears trickle down his cheeks and he pleads for his life, you are punched in the gut by the scene’s realism. Tirso Cruz III, who plays the older Oliver, is equally treacherous as the cabinet secretary who’s had a change of heart. Gina Alajar, brilliant as ever, mines her veteran instinct to show the emotional groundwork of a mother who’s afraid to lose a child she’s nurtured as her own. I do have certain misgivings in Zsa Zsa Padilla’s portrayal. Maybe I’m too much weaned on her being the sophisticated lady that she is that it doesn’t seem right to see her carry guns and don sneakers, and tough talking like a revolutionary honcho. But she works hard for her part and it shows. Allen Dizon seems misplaced and looks awkward and ill at ease in many of his scenes, and the age gap between Megan’s Dolly and Dizon’s Eddie (he was planted by the military to spy and infiltrate the leftists) is a lumbering fact.
The torture and rape scenes feel sanitized. The sense of dread is somehow watered down by its careful staging. In my mind, there’s a need to stage a brutal scene – allow it to be ruthless and ferocious - to underline the horrors of an amoral military rule gone mad. Torture victims are scarred for life, and they don’t experience savagery with cotton candy ministrations. Despite its busy narrative, fragmented storytelling and its tendency for maudlinism, “Sigwa” is better realized than the indulgent “Ka Oryang” (which won Best Picture at the recent Cinema One – a truly despicable year for the festival).
A favorite scene is Dolly and Azon’s meeting. In this scene, the camera frames a troubled Azon – with Alajar in tremendous control – while the light from outside is casting shadows against her face. It was a deliberate form of visual poetry concocting a singular emotional moment that highlights Azon’s chagrined soul. Are there limits to what a mother would do to keep a daughter? Boundless.