Bulawan nga Usa: The Gems of the Golden Ilonggo Film 

By Rjay Zuriaga Castor and Mariela Angella Oladive

Deep within the majestic mountains of Dingle and San Enrique lies a legendary tale of the golden deer, a mythical creature that promises a single wish to anyone who lays eyes upon it.

Are you ready to dare to venture up the rugged slopes in a chance to make your deepest desires come true?

Set to inspire viewers to pursue their dreams and fulfill their deepest desires, Bulawan nga Usa, an Ilonggo-produced film, has finally been on its first day of screening at the highly awaited Cinemalaya Film Festival 2023. As we embark on the film’s mystical journey about self-discovery, in the spotlight also are talented novice and experienced Ilonggo actors who bring the characters to life, delivering masterful performances that stir emotions and make the film come alive.

A First-Timer’s Tale 

Akin to casting diamonds in the rough, one of the most exciting aspects of the film to look forward to is the debut of two young actors, CJ Agasita and John Neil Paguntalan. Despite having no prior acting experience, these young talents showcase their innocence, raw emotions, and fresh perspectives on the big screen.

CJ Agasita, a 12-year-old boy from Brgy. Olango, Miagao, portrays the role of young Makoy, who loves listening to his grandfather’s stories.

Meanwhile, John Neil Paguntalan, a 10-year-old boy from Brgy. Alimodias, Miagao, plays the character of Minggo, a mountain boy whose presence becomes pivotal to the protagonist’s journey.

During the casting process, acting coach Laragene Servando-Retazo noted that Paguntalan stood out among all the auditionees because of his exceptional talent and potential.

“He is very nice, a very sincere child. He is a bit shy but answers whenever asked. The vibe director Kenneth is looking for is in him,” she said.

Agasita’s physical features, such as his complexion and body type, were considered during the selection process to resemble the adult Makoy.

Being a first-timer cast member, however, has its share of challenges.

The children had little experience in front of the camera before shooting. To make them less awkward, the team did several sequence testing so they could get used to the camera.

Agasita and Paguntalan also completed a ten-day acting workshop at the University of the Philippines Visayas-Miagao Campus to familiarize themselves with acting nuances.

During pre-production, Agasita adjusted his accent to sound like a native Hiligaynon speaker from the city, although he is from Miagao, and his native language is Karay-a. His adjustment required significant effort and support from his mother.

“CJ [portraying]  the role of young Makoy [is] supposed to speak as someone from Iloilo City but he is from Miagao [— he is a Karay-a speaker]. There is really a big leap of adjustments for the young actors since everything for them is new. They never even had the chance to watch in a cinema,” Servando-Retazo said.

Paguntalan, on the other hand, was initially timid, but since he has more scenes than the young Makoy, his development in terms of understanding and playing his character is much more apparent.

“I made it simpler for the kids,” said Ratazo, describing her training approach when working with the children.

She began by letting them read the script multiple times for them to fully comprehend the story and their characters. Subsequently, she allowed them to express their understanding before explaining it in a language they could easily understand. As a result, the children developed a profound emotional connection with their roles and demonstrated growth throughout the shooting process.

“Emotionally, the development of kids towards acting went out towards the end of the shooting days. It was maybe because they already understood [the story and their character] well,” she said.

From Stage to Screen 

Ron Matthews Espinosa takes on the lead role of adult “Makoy”. Just like the character he is portraying, he also embarks on the journey of self-discovery as he transitions from acting on the stage as a theater actor to being a lead actor for a film on the silver screen.

Joining him is fellow theater actress Tara Rose Lozano-Molin, who portrays the role of Linda, Minggo’s loving mother.  Also making a comeback is UPV Prof. Babbeth Fuentes-Vargas who played the role of Makoy’s mother.

After reading the script of Bulawan nga Usa while working with Director Kenneth on the production, Espinosa became fascinated with the story and was inspired to audition for the role. Drawing on his background in theater as a solid foundation, he found the transition from live stage performances to the world of film cameras to be a thrilling yet demanding endeavor.

“I really leaned towards the theater [acting] approach because that’s the background I grew up with before the shooting days. But when the actual day came, it felt entirely new to me. Even though I anticipated that it would be the same during the shooting, it turned out to be quite different in terms of how I needed to prepare myself. In theater, everything is rehearsed, and even though it’s a live performance, it’s somewhat similar in approach, but the intensity was significantly higher,” Espinosa shared.

Espinosa added that one of his realizations as a neophyte actor for the film is that preparation is both physically and emotionally intense, and the “demands of the film environment are three times more exhausting, maybe even five times.”

Molin, on the other hand, shared many similarities with Espinosa, as both had a background in theater. Doing the film, she discovered that there were significant differences between theater and film during the shooting process, particularly with regard to the sequence of filming.

In preparation for her role, Molin delved deeply into her character’s background, imagining and understanding her character’s motivations. She also watched related video clips, teleseryes, and movies that featured similar characters to her own, in order to determine the best approach to portraying her character’s style.

Prof. Vargas used to work on television and already had numerous experiences performing on stage before taking on the role of Makoy’s mother in the film. She had already developed a rapport with Ron before filming began as he was her child’s classmate, which made the experience both effortless and enjoyable.

“We hit it off right away, even during the audition when Kevin Piamonte asked me to try out for the role of a mother, but I didn’t know anything about the character,” she shared, adding that it became easy for her to play her role after knowing that Ron would play as her son in the film.

But unlike reality, in the film, their mother-son relationship was marred with distance that will surely reflect a common situation in most Filipino households.

To the Cinemalaya stage

Cinemalaya, committed to nurturing talent and promoting independent filmmaking, continues to be a beacon for aspiring and established actors alike. But not only that it offers the opportunity to actors and filmmakers, but it also puts into the forefront the unique, rich, and diverse culture of the regions within the Philippines without overlooking the grim realities many Filipinos face.

What sets Bulawan nga Usa apart from others featured in this year’s Cinemalaya Film Festival is the Ilonggo story and talents deeply ingrained within it. Every aspect, from the crew to the cast, filming location, and post-production processes, is authentically Ilonggo.

For Espinosa, this film serves as a powerful testament that Cinemalaya is not just meant for Imperial Manila but for all Filipinos, bridging the gap and showcasing stories from different regions of the country.

The narrative of Bulawan nga Usa touches not only the hearts of the Ilonggo community but resonates with all Filipinos, as it portrays a compelling journey of pursuing dreams and overcoming fear, exploring themes that profoundly connect with each one of us.

Don’t miss out on this extraordinary journey with the golden deer. Secure your tickets in advance and be part of this unforgettable experience! Join us as we discover the magic and meaning behind Bulawan nga Usa!

For the PICC screenings, here’s the link to ticketworld online booking: https://premier.ticketworld.com.ph/shows/Show.aspx…

You may also check the online ticketing for Ayala Cinemas here: https://www.sureseats.com/theaters/movies.asp?event=13621

This feature story is the last of three parts. 

First part: Bulawan nga Usa: The Minds Behind the Golden Ilonggo Film

Second part: Bulawan nga Usa: The Invisible Artists on the Set