If Superman had this childhood…
It takes a while for the image to come into focus. It finally does as the camera turns the corner to reveal the main character. But then the camera stops, so we see only half of him. He is sitting silently as his mother is talking to someone. His name is Kalel. He is fifteen. And he is in the hospital.
We do no hear what is said as the doctor talks to Kalel and his mother, Edith. He keeps his head down, except for when Edith shoves him in anger. What happened? What did he do?
We finally hear the first line of dialog as Kalel and Edith are leaving the hospital on a bus. She calls him an embarrassment and a shithead, worrying that others will call her a bad mother because of him, even though she worked so hard to have him sent to school. Jesus. What did he do? Whatever Kalel did, Edith warns him against telling anyone. He had definitely better not tell his sister, since her tongue is as loose as her vagina. Jesus! Mother of the year right here.
Kalel and Edith go to the food court stall that she owns. His sister, Ruth, who has been working there by herself, asks where they have been. Edith says that she is not in the mood, and then starts to complain about Ruth putting dirty dishes where they are not supposed to go. Ruth counters that she has been swamped, and then yells at Kalel to help out instead of looking at his phone.
So, Kalel washes dishes…rather slowly. Meanwhile, Edith is getting a shoulder massage from some guy. And that guy’s wife does not seem to appreciate that.
Back in his room, Kalel takes out his hidden stash of…are those comic books? Still wrapped in plastic covering? He then looks at his reflection the mirror and…I guess tries to do a sexy pose. He then goes to his bed, takes a picture of himself covering his mouth, and then sends it out on Facebook.
It is morning and Ruth accuses Kalel of misplacing the hair dryer. Kalel does not quite deny the accusation, but says that she leaves her underwear all over the place. Edith tries to get them to stop arguing, but that only turns into an argument between her and Ruth over Ruth’s boyfriend Danny. After Kalel butts into the argument and almost gets into a physical fight with Ruth, Edith starts lecturing Ruth about how much she works to make sure they are all fed, that Danny is bad boyfriend material, and that Ruth should at least wear protection so that she does not get pregnant again. Kalel smirks as Ruth storms off to get dressed. Once they are alone, Edith asks Kalel if he has told Ruth. He shakes his head.
Kalel is at school, being distracted by his friend, Jeric. His girlfriend, Sue, shows up at the door and tries to get him to sneak out. As the teacher is chastising another student for using her phone, he cannot really do much. Sue rolls her eyes and walks off.
At gym, Jeric and Kalel’s other friends gather round. Jeric asks if Kalel is doing okay. Kalel just says that he is not feeling well. Jeric asks if he is having problems with Sue. Sue had texted Jeric yesterday, asking if Kalel was with him. Jeric jokes that they are breaking up before even having sex. Well, Kalel insists that he has done other stuff with Sue.
Later on, Kalel goes over to Sue and…um…steals a piece of her lunch. She laughs as she chases him through the school hallways.
Kalel walks with Sue down the street to the tuk tuk stop. Kalel can sense that something is bothering her. She says that he was able to send out some picture to a thousand fans on Facebook, but cannot respond to her messages. Kalel apologizes, saying that he had to do a lot of errands for his mother. Well, that may be technically true. She is not really accepting that, and refuses to give him a kiss before she gets on the tuk tuk for home.
Back home, Kalel takes a picture of his torso, and uploads it with the caption: Let’s jerk off together. Oh…well, now. He scrolls through some earlier messages that he had not gotten to.
Edith knocks on the door and Kalel pretends to be asleep. She tells him to get up. His father is downstairs. After a bit, Kalel goes down, but waits by the stairs as his father says to Edith that he has come only because she kept pestering his secretary. Kalel walks over after that, giving no indication that he heard what his father had just said. His father asks what happened. Only gay men end up with that. With…what? Kalel’s father asks if he is gay, with a tone that suggests that the answer had better be no. Kalel is silent. Oh, shit. Kalel has HIV? Kalel’s father asks how he got it, but Kalel is still silent. Edith says that she had asked him as well, but got nothing. Well, time for some soup. Edith asks if this means that he is done talking to his son. Kalel’s father says only that he is hungry.
Kalel observes his father leave. Wait, he has a pretty fancy car and a driver? How loaded is this guy? And he doesn’t properly provide for his son?
Kalel is playing pool with his friends, but Sue wants to go home. Without even looking at her, Kalel tells her that she can go. Jeric asks if she is not going to the party with them, as they already brought beer and munchies.
Well, Sue does end up going to the party, though she does not seem to be enjoying it. Kalel, however, is having a ball, completely unbothered by Sue’s annoyance. He is dancing on his own…then then with this other girl, as Sue stands against the wall smoking and sulking.
Kalel is smoking weed (or something) with his buddies in the bedroom when Sue comes in and asks to talk to him. His buddies leave, joking that it might be more than just talking. Sue asks Kalel about their relationship status, but he just wants to joke around. Sue presses further. How is it that he can be so sweet and kind one moment and then suddenly so cold and uncaring? What happened? She knows that something has changed, but what? Kalel goes silent, smoking his cigarette and not even looking at her. Sue gets fed up and storms off.
Kalel returns home to find his mother in his room, going through his stuff. He starts to protest, but she demands to know where he has been. He lies about some school project. Edith does not believe him for a second. And how did he get all of these expensive comic books? Selling drugs? Why is he doing this to her? What did she do to deserve this? Kalel insists that not everything is about her. And he is the one with HIV.
Edith tells Kalel to shut up, but it is too late. Ruth comes in, concerned and in disbelief. Edith tells her to mind her own business, but Ruth counters that the two of them had woken her up with their shouting. So, Edith swears at her daughter and threatens to hang her upside down if she blabs about this like she had blabbed about her abortion.
Finally, Kalel is alone. Except he cannot sleep; something itches really bad. He gets up and goes to the mirror. That cannot be good.
Kalel is still itchy in the morning while he is working at the stall. His mother tells him to go get his tuition money from his father. Well, at least it is nice for his father to provide him that, I guess. Kalel says that he does not want to go there. Edith asks why. After all, he is the reason for Kalel going to a good school. He should be grateful to have that man as a father. Just imagine if it were any of her other boyfriends who had gotten pregnant, Kalel would have gotten nothing, like Ruth. Then Edith and her friend Mameng start talking about her boyfriend, Mon. Wait…is Mon the guy from before…the married guy?
So, Kalel goes there…which turns out to be a church. And…hold on…his father is…a father?
After the service is over, Kalel’s father, Father George, hands him a wad of cash, telling him to give it to his mother. He starts to ask Kalel how he is, but is interrupted by a married couple and their baby. Father George holds the little boy lovingly, as Kalel looks on. The man apologizes for interrupting Father George’s conversation with his…guest. Father George says that he is the son of a friend, just dropping by. Kalel tells “Father” that he needs to go, as his mother is waiting. Father George asks him if he is not going to eat, but Kalel says that he is full. He thanks “Father” and leaves.
Kalel is counting the cash as he leaves the church grounds when “Father” stops him. Father gives him a small bottle of…virgin coconut oil? He had read on the internet that it helps the viral level drop. After an awkward pause, he taps Kalel on the shoulder and then walks back. Kalel thanks him.
This is…yeah, not a feel-good movie. Everyone seems to come off as a bad person and any act of goodness tends to be either transactional or undercut soon afterwards. Still, I would hesitate to call this misery-porn or a public services announcement.
The movie shows a society that is, has been, and probably will continue to be completely unprepared to deal with the scourge of HIV. And it shows it through the portrayal of one teenager named Kalel. Why is it important for the title to point out that he is fifteen? Is that merely showing the age that he had contracted HIV? Is fifteen also the age that he died? Is it portraying him as a statistic? One of millions?
Of course, Kalel is not a statistic. Kalel is a kid, just like the other kids in this movie are kids. He is not an angel, but he is not a demon child deserving of his lot. He bristles against his parents, he jokes about sex with his friends, he goofs off in school, he likes to party, he is on social media a bit too much. He sometimes feels lost, without a true guiding hand to help him. His choices, good are bad, are because those who should be helping him either fail or seem unworthy of his trust.
First off, Kalel’s mother…wow. She piles on the regular guilt trip upon her children with a copious amount of swearing and personal insults. It starts to seem like she resents their existence, and is keeping them housed and fed only because she is stuck with them. Her insults towards Ruth’s sex life are particularly infuriating, as it appears that Edith was the same when she was Ruth’s age, and seems to have no regrets aside from maybe getting saddled with these kids. And, even now, striking up a relationship with a married man? The only differences are that Edith did not have an abortion or date a meth addict. Or maybe she did, we don’t know. We just know that she had many boyfriends, and would not even say which one was Ruth’s father. She would only talk about Kalel’s father.
Kalel’s father is a PRIEST? Jesus. The movie treats this as kind of an open secret. Edith appears to be perfectly fine with talking about Father George in her neighborhood, but George does not admit to it to his congregation. Utter hypocrisy. Now, Father George, who appears to be doing quite well for himself, has not completely neglected his son. He pays for Kalel’s schooling, sending him to a nice catholic school that pretends that its students are not sexual beings living in dysfunctional homes. He does…sort of…do other things to help, like giving Kalel coconut oil instead of providing the means for official treatment. I am not sure how helpful that actually is, but it does seem pretty popular on websites that I have never heard of. He is basically a stand-in for the country’s Catholic standards, willing to help out only to make sure that Catholic teachings are instilled in its people, but barely doing anything else for them, doing nothing for anyone else, pushing aside other complications, and acting above it all as it all worsens.
There are some interesting choices that the movie makes in terms of exposition. Or lack thereof. That slow focus thingamee at the start is a sign that information will not come easy, and certain bits will not come at all. We start just before the diagnosis, but do not learn what made him go with his mother to get checked up in the first place. We do not even learn how he contracted HIV. Edith and Father George try to get that that out of him, but he does not tell them. Is it shame? Or is it terror of what they would do if he told them the truth? We don’t really know. In a way, withholding that information may allow viewers to speculate, but it also cuts off conclusive comments about how he could have avoided getting it. Maybe it wouldn’t have happened if he did this and didn’t do that. If only this or that. Nope. The story is not about how he got HIV; he has it and that is that. The story is about how he deals with it. This is a story about him.
Another source of ambiguity is Kalel’s sexuality. Is he gay? Or at least bisexual? It is not quite clear. Perhaps Kalel himself doesn’t know. After all, he is fifteen, in a heavily Catholic country, and sent to a Catholic school. It is unclear how long he has been going out with Sue, but it appears that the two of them have not…consummated, even though they have been surrounded by sexuality. That doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Nor does Kalel’s odd behavior towards her. We see him only after his diagnosis, and it seems like he was much kinder before…though not always. So, it could be that he was merely a normal jerkass teenage boyfriend before and this current ramped-up jerkitude was a way of getting her to break up with him…or maybe not. He still tries to play it cool with his buddies, who seem to be untroubled by his cold behavior towards his girlfriend.
When Kalel goes home and is alone in his room, that is when things change. No friends, no girlfriend, no family, no neighbors. There is only him, his phone, and his secret comic books. He takes pictures of himself and posts them on social media, to the enjoyment of hundreds of people…mostly older men. Older men who post all sorts of responses, some of them sexual. Perhaps most of them sexual. The movie does not really pass judgment on this practice. But it is clear that Kalel feels some sort of validation from this that he does not get from his friends (who also turn out to have miserable home lives), his girlfriend, and especially his family. His secret stash of unopened comic books implies that he gets paid by these men for certain services. It could simply be from donations for his photos; it is unclear if he does more. And, despite all of the photographs of girls on the walls of his room, there is the implication that his attraction to men may be more than just pretend. In any case, this is something that he wants to keep to himself. Out of shame? Out of fear? Or just something that he just wants to keep private? If that is the case, he is not exactly clever about it. Sue talks about following him on social media and he gets very defensive. How much does she know? Probably not enough to be questioning about her boyfriend’s sexuality.
There seems to be several levels of sexuality shown in this movie. There is the prudish denial and willful ignorance of the Catholic establishment. There is the reality of open straight sexuality among pretty much everyone in Kalel’s life. And then there is the world of gay men, or at least the part that Kalel sees; secret and a little predatory. I sincerely doubt that director Jun Robles Lana, himself a gay Filipino who has made several lighter gay-themed movies, is trying to link homosexuality and child sex abuse; just that kids in the Philippines who may not be struggling with their sexual identity may not have access to what they need to process these feelings in a safe and healthy manner, so they turn towards the only avenues that they can find, which may be more dangerous. Now, I am not sure about the inner workings of age of consent laws, but this movie was released in 2019, back when the age of consent in the Philippines was 12. It was only in March of 2022 that it was raised to 16. I am not sure if the movie would be different if it were made after that, though. Perhaps kids like Kalel would have been protected from those creepy adults, but maybe he would just be under more pressure to keep his behavior under wraps.
I probably should point out that Elijah Canlas, who played Kalel, was 18-19 when this movie was being made.
Edith’s main problems with her children is the risk of their dirty secrets getting out and tarnishing her reputation. Perhaps she is right to worry about it. No matter what information is available, the stigma is too much for people to talk about it and address it. But Lana wants this movie to show just how dangerous that type of thinking is; that the Philippines cannot afford to avoid the conversation and true action. There is not a solution given, only a first step: make people feel safe enough to be brutally honest, to not force people l into secrecy. Otherwise, the silence will continue to kill the country. And people like Kalel will be more statistics.
WTF ASIA 231: Exiled (Hong Kong: 2006, approx. 109 minutes)
WTF ASIA 232: Han Gong-ju (South Korea: 2014, approx. 113 minutes)