Kalel, 15 (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★
Kalel, fifteen years of age, is diagnosed with HIV. We are never shown or told how he got infected because writer-director Jun Robles Lana intends to create a work that does not follow a standard dramatic parabola. To offer an explanation, you see, is to suggest or place blame and so it must be avoided. This is an astute choice considering that the film is a social issue drama first and foremost, one that attempts to lift the rock that is the raging HIV epidemic in modern Philippines and we are asked to observe what’s underneath it.
I appreciated its accuracy in terms of how Filipinos perceive HIV and people who have it. When Kalel is visited by his father (Eddie Garcia), and we are meant to assume they have not seen each other in a while since they are estranged, the first words that come out of George’s mouth form two questions, almost an involuntary reaction rooted in shame and fear: if his son was a homosexual and if he had engaged in sodomy. In George’s mind—who is a priest and therefore a symbol of Philippine society (the country is composed mostly of Catholics)—only gay people get HIV and AIDS. And in many Filipinos’ minds, HIV and AIDS are one and the same; it is a death sentence. And if you get it, because you are gay, a faggot, you deserve to die.
The first few minutes of the picture, presented in stunning black-and-white (especially when shot outdoors at night), is so powerful, one cannot help but to wonder what other painful truths it has yet to impart. And so we follow Kalel’s daily activities: being woken up, going to school, hanging out with friends, his sweet and sour relationship with his girlfriend (Gabby Padilla), how he helps out from time to time in his family’s humble eatery, and what he does before bed when alone with his cell phone. It sounds mundane—and it is. But it is never boring because every event, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, provides information or insight about our young protagonist’s life.
This is a child who yearns for validation and affirmation. In life, he does not get either: not from his financially stressed single mother (Jaclyn Jose), not from his sister (Elora Españo) who is kind when not entirely up herself, not from his friends who seem unable to discuss subjects outside of girls and who’s hooking up with whom, and certainly not from his father who is ashamed of a. having a son out of wedlock (who must be kept secret) and b. having a son who has a “gay disease.” Take note that there is only one time in which the father touches his son: a hand on the shoulder, barely a second long, no skin contact. This man of god is disgusted of his very own flesh and blood. It is apparent that writer-director despises religious hypocrisy. This is only one of many examples, overt and subtle, dispersed throughout this deeply personal work.
The rest of the film is tightening grip. We meet Kalel upon receiving his HIV-positive diagnosis and learn quite quickly that he has minimal level of support. Aside from the doctor, no one is knowledgeable about HIV, the biology of the virus and how it affects human physiology, and the medical advances made in recent years that have allowed people diagnosed with HIV to live normal lives. Kalel’s mother reprimands him for being stupid and thankless. When by himself, he begins to notice changes in his body, like rashes appearing on his chest. Not once do we see him take medication or attend counseling sessions. Except for occasional reminders, mostly rooted in shame belted out by others, Kalel lives his life as if he did not have HIV.
Elijah Canlas plays Kalel quiet and small. In a way, he must because that is precisely how Kalel feels: small, nothing important, maybe less than nothing. But the movie is not without some glimpses of light. There are funny moments shared among mother, son, and sister. I think these instances are remnants of both Kalel’s childhood and state of mind before he received soul-crushing news that he has a disease of which there is currently no cure. Should you choose to dive in, prepare for a raw, unconventional, immersive, and challenging experience.