TL;DR: Siargao is a thoughtful, melancholic take on finding yourself in an enchanting foreign land.
The idea of going to an unfamiliar land in order to find oneself has always been a tempting idea. Removing ourselves from the stresses & comforts of our ordinary routine can give us a chance to reflect & find out who we really are & what we really want in life. It’s such an alluring idea that it’s a trope used in different kinds of movies from coming-of-age stories, romantic comedies, & even action-adventure movies. It even had a resurgence in Filipino cinema thanks to the huge success of That Thing Called Tadhana (That Thing Called Destiny).
Paul Soriano’s first foray into romantic dramas dives head first into this trope – with a script by Anj Pessumal – but Siargao stands out from the rest by broadening its scope past its main outsider.
Laura (Erich Gonzalez) is a vlogger who ran away to Siargao to do some soul-searching after a life-changing moment didn’t go the way it should’ve. On the plane, she meets Diego (Jericho Rosales), a member of a famous band who escaped to his hometown of Siargao due to a scandal he caused. The two of them are at odds at first, but slowly become friends. Things start to get complicated when Diego reconnects with his old friend Abi (Jasmine Curtis-Smith), who are linked due to their muddy past.
What Siargao does so well is subtly tackle the myopia inherent in stories like this. Journeys of Self-Discovery™ are about enriching oneself in order to become a better person, but it is selfish in nature. Not that it’s a bad thing – since taking care of yourself & improving oneself should be encouraged – but it can become a narcissistic ordeal, where a place & its inhabitants are reduced to vessels of self-improvement, stripping it away of its humanity & complexity.
These are even more egregious in Western stories, where Caucasian men & women searching for themselves descend into “Orientalism,” seeing the East as an exotic place of wonder, mystery, & enlightenment. One of the biggest offenders include Eat, Pray, Love & Hector and the Search for Happiness; the latter of which has Simon Pegg writing “sometimes happiness is not knowing the whole story” in a notebook with one of the letters turned into a sad face after witnessing a violent incident involving a prostitute & her pimp while staying in Shanghai.
Obviously, Siargao never becomes an Orientalist tale simply because it’s not a tale told from the perspective of a white person, but the movie can still turn Siargao into an exotic paradise full of wise, simple folks who will help realize the full potential of privileged outsiders who can afford to stay there. What Siargao does to mitigate this is to fill the movie with characters who are also trying to find out what they want in their lives, including the ones who live in the island. Laura is surrounded by people who are also lost or taking a break from their lives in Siargao; some of them fell in love with the island so hard they choose to stay longer. Abi is a native who’s already chosen a path for herself – setting up a business while helping out initiatives to preserve the island’s beauty & support other business ventures from fellow locals – but Diego’s return makes her question her past decisions. And while Diego never shed his roots, his controversies force him to go back to the island & examine old wounds. Not only does this open up other points of view we don’t usually see in similar stories, but it questions the need for an “exotic paradise” in order to grow & if we are doing anything to conserve these places.
And the stories are compelling, even if they seem small in the grand scheme of it all. There’s a raw intimacy present as these people try to rebuild their lives, while a heavy sense of loss & regret slowly builds up, receding & progressing, until it crashes down on them, forcing them to do what they think is right. Setting it in the gorgeous vistas & beaches of Siargao isn’t put to waste thanks to Odyssey Flores, who captures the grandeur of Siargao, its surfing culture, & the interior lives of its characters through a variety of wide, drone & handheld shots inspired by vlogging that make the personal look epic & the epic look personal. The indie rock soundtrack, while typical, is still effective at capturing the movie’s mix of romance & melancholy.
Great performances from the central trio are key to making it less flimsy than it seems. Erich Gonzales is fantastic as a tourist opening up herself to Siargao & its people. Jericho Rosales gives Diego the right amount of smugness & charm that makes him even more charismatic. Jasmine Curtis-Smith is more quiet & subdued as Abi, but you can see how Diego’s return has made it awkward for her. In fact, all of them are trying to hide their suffering under their facades, trying to hold onto it until they become vulnerable.
What Siargao deeply understands about people is we will be forced to face our issues sooner or later. While places like Siargao offer a temporary respite from our problems, neither the island nor its inhabitants will resolve our problems. The island is just a place that needs to be taken care of, full of people who are also lost & in transition. What matters most is to figure out what we truly want & have the courage to pursue it & face the consequences.