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 Celebration of Philippine culture:  A ‘Firefly’ review

by Gaby Agbulos

Warning: This review contains spoilers for the film “Firefly” (2023).

“Ang pagmamahal ay mas malakas kaysa sa takot.” 

Elay, Firefly (2023)

GOING into the film “Firefly,” I had zero expectations. When I watch a movie, a lot of the time I don’t like to know what the plot is, who directed it, or who’s in it. I want to enter the cinema with an open mind.

Such was the case with this film. Admittedly, my top films on Letterboxd are all foreign ones, so I was surprised with just how much I enjoyed Director Zig Dulay’s work.

From the opening credits up to the end, I was enamored by how beautifully the animation in the film was done and moved by the emotional performances of each character, particularly those of Alessandra De Rossi and Ewenn Mikael Aleta.

Each part of Firefly sucks you into its world, whether it be through the imaginative illustrations of Elay’s (Alessandra De Rossi’s) story, the beautifully shot landscapes of Albay, the lively covers of different Eraserheads songs, or the natural chemistry between each of the characters. 

Above all, it has a wonderful story – one that has something for everyone.

Firefly (2023)

The plot

Firefly follows the life of a young boy named Tonton (Dingdong Dantes.) The film starts with him as an adult, talking to a reporter, who is accusing him of stealing his award-winning story from another person.

Hoping for the world to know the truth, Tonton shares his life experiences with this reporter, telling her where his story truly came from. 

As a child, Tonton (Euwenn Mikaell) was often bullied by his peers. Living in constant fear, Tonton faces not only the threat of his bullies hurting him but of a wolf he’s conjured up in his mind tearing him apart, as well. 

His mother, Elay (Alessandra de Rossi,) does her best to protect him; she tells him of the story of the butterfly and the firefly, who escape from the wolf despite having all the odds stacked against them. 

As time goes by, however, Elay starts to grow ill. To give him hope, Elay tells Tonton that she’ll be at the island of fireflies that she’s told him so much about in her stories.

When Tonton’s mother passes, he makes it his mission to get to the island of the fireflies, with his only guide being a map she’d drawn for him. 

On his journey to the island, located in Albay, he comes across three new companions after they are thrown off a bus for disrupting the other passengers.

Accompanying him in his journey are three people: Louie (Jeffrey Quizon,) a kind man with a dark past, Billy (Miguel Tanfelix,) a brooding teenage boy turned into a narcissist after experiencing heartbreak, and Erika (Ysabel Ortega,) a bright and resourceful teenage girl running away from home to a place where she’ll finally be understood. 

One thing is common with all of these characters: through the front that they put up – the facade that they play – they are all fighting their own battles. 

When you first meet Louie, you see him only as a kind individual who is protective of Tonton, so it’s surprising to find out that he was actually in jail in the past. Or you see Erika and think she’s just a happy-go-lucky girl like any other, only to find out that she’s saving up money to finally be able to leave her home.

Personally, I hated Billy throughout the first half of the movie; he was always serious and ruined any moment of happiness the other characters shared. 

But then it was revealed that he had had his heart broken by the girl whose name was tattooed on his arm, not only that but she took all of his college money too! If that were me, I’d be mad at the world, too.

Angeli Guidaya-Atienza, the writer of this film, is not afraid to make her characters flawed. That is how humans inherently are, after all, and there is nothing wrong with that. Even someone who you think is perfect may actually be going through something deep down. 

Firefly (2023)

Celebrating Filipino culture

Recently, at the 2023 Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) Awards, Firefly won Best Picture, Best Child Performer for Euwann Mikaell, and Best Screenplay for Angeli Atienza. 

One such reason why I feel that it won this is because it highlights different aspects of Philippine culture. 

Take, for example, the story of the firefly, the butterfly, and the wolf; the animation of Elay’s story is reminiscent of the children’s books we’d read growing up. Many stories and legends read to Filipino children follow this format of anthropomorphism, such as “Si Langgam at Si Tipaklong” or “Alamat ng Pating.” 

This is what I remembered while watching these characters on-screen, showing how good triumphs over evil, and how the underdog can always get on top if they do their best, teaching lessons just as many of our children’s books do.

This film, however, adds another layer of meaning to these characters. For Tonton, for example, one may assume that the wolf following him is caused by fear instilled in him by his bullies. Later on, though, it’s revealed that this wolf is a representative of his abusive father who would often hurt him and his mother while Tonton was still a child. 

Despite his young age, there is already so much that Tonton has gone through, hence why he has grown to become so fearful of the world around him. But as he goes through his journey with Erika, Billy, and Louie, he starts to come out of his shell more and more. 

He re-learns what his mother has taught him all over again: that love will always triumph.

Aside from these animations, though, I feel that this film also highlights Philippine culture in its choice of location.

As a kid growing up in Manila, it’s a big challenge for Tonton to head off to the province to get to the island of the fireflies. Heading off to Albay, he navigates the vast greenery and sea waves just to get to where he needs to go.

On his journey, director Zig Dulay highlights the beauty of these locations, using wide shots to show the landscapes around him, as well as including scenes with different tourist attractions present in Albay. 

Watching the film even made me want to join in on their adventure just so I could go for a swim in those crystal blue waters. 

More than this, our culture is also embodied by the characters within the film, in that they represent the kindness that I believe is innate in every Filipino. 

Even though these four people do not know each other, they band together to help Tonton anyway. Why? Because they know that it’s important to him, simple as that. 

They do not think ill of Tonton; it doesn’t come to their minds that he may be tricking them. Their immediate instinct is not only to trust this child but to help him get to the island of the fireflies, even though it’s out of their way. 

Firefly (2023)

The final verdict

Overall, I enjoyed Firefly much more than I thought it would. Though it has many tenets you’d find in any Filipino family flick, it tells its story in a way that is still unique. It does so with how it is animated and written, using certain techniques not to make up for a lack of story, but only to elevate what is already there. 

This film won Best Picture at the MMFF, and I wholeheartedly believe that it deserves that title. If you’re looking for a film that’ll tug at your heartstrings, as well as one that is perfect for the whole family, then book tickets for Firefly while you still can. 

Get your popcorn and your tissues ready, because this one’s sure to be a tearjerker.

Firefly (2023), courtesy of GMA Public Affairs on YouTube
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