Human trafficking is a cruel reality in the Philippines: according to the United States Department of State, the Southeast Asian country is counted as a source country for men, women and children to be shipped as goods for other countries. This sad fact is highlighted by the 2012 film Alagwa.
According to director and writer Ian Lorenos, he intended to create an emotional father-and-son story. However, as the story organically developed and certain elements of his childhood were integrated into the creative process, he sensed that this film was headed for something bigger.
His premonition was correct; the film went on to garner recognition from various film organizations across the world, including praise from the prestigious Busan International Film Festival. The film also urged USAID and MTV Exit to screen it once more on March 3, 2014 in an effort to raise awareness against human trafficking.
What a Father will do For Family
Robert Lim, portrayed by Jericho Rosales, is a single parent struggling to make ends meet. His son Brian, played by Bugoy Carino, is a charming yet mischievous child who suffers yet understands the necessity of living a life of poverty in the midst of his financially capable peers. Robert’s wife and Brian’s mother, unidentified, died giving birth to Brian. Robert and Brian have a very warm relationship towards each other, highlighted by the charming handshake Brian taught his father.
At the beginning of the film, Robert answers a phone call from his boss, while Brian wanders off. It foreshadows the event that will drive Robert to do the unthinkable. The film further establishes the complexity of the relationship the two central characters have, and how one of Robert’s officemates helps him through financially tough times.
Ironically, it is through Robert’s efforts to win money for the two of them that he lost his son. He leaves his son in the comfort room as he falls in line to buy lottery tickets. When he returns to fetch his son, he suddenly disappears. After a frantic yet futile search in the mall where he lost his son, the mall provides footage that Brian is taken away by an older kid. He immediately goes to the police. However, when he learns that the police would be of no help to him, he takes matters into his own hands.
Using desperate measures, he is about to get hold of his son back again through a connection he makes which allows him a sneak peek into the underworld of Philippine syndicates. However, as he gets close to his son, misunderstandings between him and the police cost him his only chance of saving his son from a cruel fate of becoming a commodity for other people overseas.
After a long time and several trips to Hong Kong in search of Brian, Robert finds a disfigured man playing the same harmonica Brian used to play while searching for his new son who also wanders off. He takes the hands of the man, positions it in the same manner that they did their handshake; the disfigured man finishes their secret handshake.
Alagwa is a piece of art; this fact is backed by the various accolades it received. This can be attributed to several key factors.
First of all, the actors carrying the film were superb with their delivery. Carino effectively made his way towards the people’s hearts with Brian’s familiar, rugged charm. Rosales brilliantly embodied the character of a normal father chucked into and broke under a high-pressure, high-stress situation. The chemistry of Carino and Rosales on screen as father and son was heartfelt and convincing.
Secondly, the backdrop of Manila provides a unique experience to those who are financially well off. The familiar streets of Binondo were successfully turned into a seedy, unknown lair of Manila’s underground. The film brought into the open a known secret that is rampant in Manila’s streets.
Finally, Alagwa’s story reflects the lives of a lot of Filipino people. Many will be able to identify with or know someone comparable to either Robert or Brian. Alagwa’s plot has been crafted in such a way that a lot of individuals will be able to personally identify with the character, which makes it more impactful.
Aspects that were trafficked
As much as Alagwa is a brilliant piece of art, the film also comes with its own minor problems.
There is a character which seems to be sitting on the fence between being a major and a minor character. Robert’s officemate is presented in such a way that she will become an integral part of the story, but she does not appear again until the end of the film where she became Robert’s new wife.
Finally, the plot of the story may have left the audience looking for more. The film spends a good part of the film establishing the complex relationship of Robert and Brian, so much that if felt like the film immediately buzzed through the rest of the film.
A Mirror of Philippine Society
Alagwa is successful in delivering the message: trafficking is not a reality our people should remain comfortable with. It effectively portrayed the different problems that Philippine society has that contribute to the propagation of human trafficking.
It presents how the need for money pushes people to disregard others at times. Like a lot of other Filipinos, Robert tries his luck with Lotto to provide a better future for the two of them. His desperation to become financially blessed has pushed him to leave his only son alone.
It also demonstrates the disillusionment several people have with the local police. It also painted the painful truth of how incapable the police is in stopping human trafficking. In the film, the police force is sincere in their efforts of helping Robert find his son, but a probable lack of intelligence gathering and equipment from the police causes Robert to fully distrust the police force and take matters into his own hands. It is also due to this lack of coordination between Robert and the police that Robert loses his only chance to getting his son back from the syndicate.
Third, it shows just how deep into society human trafficking works. The film does not present who the heads of the hydra are. Both Robert and his connection were at the mercy of the lady who was guarding the gates of hell. Alagwa does not have a macho lead character with unlimited bullets; he is at the mercy of the syndicate. Sadly, so are we.
Finally, it presents how sudden things can be gained and lost. Robert lost his only son in an instant. By taking matters into his own hands, he immediately gets hold of a person that will help him get his son back. In a drop of a cellular phone, he also loses his only beacon. The suddenness presented how quickly things can be achieved and taken away from people in a world of uncertainty.
A Secret Handshake for All of Us
However, the fact that Robert finds Brian in the end leaves an encouraging message: people can end human trafficking and find justice, regardless of how severe the condition is. It is in the bleakness of the situation that the film encourages everyone to fight. Alagwa urges a lot of aspects in society to hold hands and actively campaign against the crime of human trafficking.
Philippine cinema is full of feel-good films that talk about people with economic standings not every single one of the country’s 100 million citizens can relate to. Alagwa comes with a message that is a bitter pill to swallow, but can catalyse the nation’s battle towards a better tomorrow: a tomorrow where no parent has to leave his child alone for the sake of money. A tomorrow where there are no Roberts or Brians.
It is about time that this source country becomes a source of hope.
1. United States Department of State, 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report – Philippines, 19 June 2013, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/51c2f3964d.html [accessed 3 March 2014]
2. Jorge, Rome, ‘Alagwa’: Frantic Desparation, 14 October 2013, available at http://www.rappler.com/entertainment/movies/41320-ian-lorenos-jericho-rosales-alagwa-movie-review [accessed 3 March 3, 2014]