Signal Rock (Philippines, 2018) [SDAFF 2018]

Chito Rono’s Signal Rock is a film that revolves around the day-to-day struggles of a poor family in Biri, Samar and their efforts to help their distraught family member who is working as an overseas Filipino worker (OFW) in Finland. Intoy (Christian Bables), who stood as the interface between his distraught sister and his family, acts as the main regulator of the narrative. He regulates in ways wherein he maintains the role of a fulcrum. He is the point in the assemblage which points outward, a directionality that also sutures a line of contradiction.

Signal Rock is essentially about the antimonies of Capital, in particular, the dialectical relation of appearance and essence of money. According to Marx, money has no material essence and can only function at a symbolic level. Hence, it can be simply replaced by another symbol (a fake money). However, money is nothing but real as it is the universal equivalent of commodities circulating the market, which in turn is equivalent to the generic value of socialized abstract labour.

In the film, capital does not appear in a form of commodity production, but as relations of power. Hence, capital in a film acts an implicit force that intensifies the contradiction of its narrative to its ends.

The core of the film is a family unit. Like most Filipino families with OFWs abroad, Intoy’s family largely depends on her sister’s remittances. Their means of subsistence largely depends on the sale of her labour power to foreign capital. However, this compulsion to sell labour became more complex when Intoy’s sister fell in love with her European lover and bore a child from the relationship. This lessened her remittances to the family since she has another dependent, her child.

However, this relationship did not last. Intoy received a distress call from his sister saying that her lover became abusive. This ignited the whole ruckus in the family as relationships were tested. Intoy’s sister fled from her abusive partner to a Catholic chapel where she asked for help. However, the chapel called the police to report her case. Since Intoy’s sister and her boyfriend are not married, she faces the risk of losing her claim for her daughter unless she can prove that she has the means of subsistence for her daughter.

In a way, capital in the film crystalizes a representational form of debt economy as a relay of exchanges: a favor for a favor. Intoy acts as a vassal, a warm body servicing capital’s contradictory appearance as money. Since Intoy’s family do not have the means of subsistence, Intoy resorted to falsifying almost all of his sister’s documents. Money appears at the symbolic level, functioning as mere representation, lacking, for all its worth, a valuable essence that would substantiate Intoy’s family’s real wealth.

Intoy has to bank on this speculative property of money. Intoy, through the help of the people in the municipality, including the government, was able to generate enough faked documentary evidence to support his sister’s claim. However, they received a notice that the Embassy of Finland will conduct an ocular visit on the island to verify their properties. However, this visit did not happen because a storm had passed. They were asked instead to travel to the nearest port area in Lavezares where they can meet the Embassy representative. The family pleaded in desperation. They tried so hard to impress the Embassy representative. In the end, what convinced the Embassy is the mother, Alicia, who shown a photo of her daughter and granddaughter.

Signal Rock shows that, at the heart of this debt servicing, this circulatory drama, is a creeping shadow of corruption deeply embedded in the history of a small village. Rono sees this small village as a microcosm of the ailing Philippine nation-state deeply entrenched in corruption much like his other film Badil (2013). In Badil, the same circulatory symptom was imagined: a village grappling in poverty, highly dependent on bribery as a means of subsistence.

Underneath this effort of Intoy to create an illusion of wealth is a series of exchanges of favours and debts, for which the ultimate denominator and underlying basis for this value system is a full clasp of capital over a rural economy, a money with a double face. Rono is keen in not showing this at face value. He constructs it as a series of relation between characters, between exchanges: a favour for a favour, in an attempt to map a contradiction of a highly webbed systematic penetration of capital. Signal Rock also shows the depth at which capital penetrates. That even the most far-flung community, in this case, an island at the end of world, cannot escape its double-face.

Signal Rock is showing on November 13 at the San Diego Asian Film Festival.