SXSW 2021: An Immigrant Tale Of Overcoming Loneliness: ‘Islands’ Reviewed

by Gary Catig

South by Southwest (SXSW) is an influential annual event that taps into different facets of our culture including music and interactive media. The festival also provides an opportunity to catch emerging storytellers in film. One such creator is Martin Edralin, who makes his feature film debut with Islands. The movie is the first-ever Filipino language narrative feature to premiere in competition in SXSW.

The story follows Joshua (Rogelio Balagtas), a shy, middle-aged Filipino immigrant who has grown complacent with the comfort of living with his parents his whole life. However, as his parents become older, he faces the possibility of being alone. When a cousin arrives to help with his ailing father, her presence rejuvenates the household while stirring up confusing feelings in Joshua.

Islands is a poignant tale that perfectly captures the Filipino diasporic experience. Many details of the culture are present from the religious influences to the love of line dancing and they provide strong connection points for people of Philippine heritage. The intimate family moments are relatable and the predominance of Tagalog and incorporation of traditional music in the score bring that much more authenticity. With the success and critical acclaim of Minari, hopefully viewers are more open to a western film in a foreign language.

However, the darker sides of being immigrants in a new land are also addressed in subtle ways. Marisol, the cousin, discusses the horrors and exploitation she endures as a caretaker in the Middle East. Meanwhile, Joshua laments the fact that he was a dentist in his native country but now works as a university janitor. This highlights the sacrifices they make in order to provide for their families and pursue better economic opportunities.

Martin Edralin

The feature includes more universal themes of isolation and longing for connection. The combination of being a foreigner and his shy, introverted personality prevents Joshua from making friends. The lack of social life makes it easier for him to commit to his filial duties. Only when Marisol arrives can he let his guard down and find someone to bond with. It’s a gradual process peppered with tiny instants of joy as we watch Joshua’s growth.

Balagtas does an admirable job portraying Joshua. He hits all the emotional beats from melancholy to happiness and develops a sympathetic character who is a dutiful son and all-around nice guy but suffers from loneliness. Although at times, the story can become uncomfortable and borderline creepy as Joshua explores his feelings for Marisol.

In Islands, Martin Edralin crafts a compelling movie that can cater to Filipinos and non-Filipinos alike. For Filipinos, it provides an authentic, relatable immigrant experience and a chance to see representation on the screen. Everyone can appreciate the universal themes of loneliness and connection in this bittersweet slice of life tale.

SXSW 2021 runs from March 16th-21st

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