In Don Gerardo Frasco’s Waves, the notion of a peaceful island spirals into a cacophony of frustration and despair when two old friends try to rekindle their love for one another. With every scene, new challenges surface for our main characters to confront within the confines of their crumbling haven. The triumph of Waves is Frasco’s ability to enrapture the trouble that exists in paradise. Sure, its Philippine environments look beautiful, but when propped up against the anguish of the story’s lies and mistrust, they take on the feel of an awkward, unreachable dream for our disillusioned secret lovers.
Its main characters are thinly sketched early on, yet details illuminate as their background unfolds throughout the course of the film. Here is a story about a Filipino man (Baron Geisler) and an American model (Ilona Struzik), who find love in New York City and decide to pursue their love after years apart. Ross is an insecure man who drowns his sorrows in whiskey. On the brink of losing Sofia again, he quickly finds an excuse to resume art drinking. Geisler plays the role with candid realism, but doesn’t have much material to push him out of his comfort zone.
While Ross is firmly grounded in his depression, Sofia comes across as aloof and indecisive. Struzik, being a model in real life, fits the role while relying on her beauty as part of her performance. One can see why Ross is so fixated with her, yet Sofia’s unclear issues with her husband back in New York City prove a problem . The past is immortalized in the Philippines, yet the present is unattainable. The somber piano score, akin to the chilling riffs from Jaws and Psycho, are the only indicator that their fatal love affair is destined to fail.
The film takes place on an indulgent private island, best suited for a romantic honeymoon. In urban scenic films, like Manhattan or Swim Little Fish Swim, the chaos of New York City almost parallels and compliments the hysteria plaguing Isaac (Woody Allen) or Leeward (Dustin Guy Defa). Yet in Waves, the beauty of the island almost contradicts the ugliness of emotions Ross and Sofia have to endure. The island hints at a fairly tale ending, only to be swept up by a tidal wave of separation.
Some of the wider panoramic shots, especially those that bring out the hidden beauties of the Philippines, are keenly reminiscent of Scott Cohen’s 2014 film Red Knot, an underwhelming drama that is admittedly stunning and elegant in terms of imagery. The similarities also extend to the plot (couples with roots in New York tackling ongoing relationship problems) and setting (remote places of tranquility and surreal natural beauty, with Antarctica in Red Knot‘s case).
Frasco’s past work as a cinematographer is apparent with his knack for filming casual events in a character’s life in a way that, through the slightest change of lighting or scenery, can have it reflect the character’s change in mood and feelings. Grand shots of whale sharks fade in and out of scenes, with one of our protagonists swimming next to the beasts. In any other movie, this would feel contrived as flagrant embellishments of adventure and thrills. Yet with our brazed male lead confronting anguish and near depression, it becomes a test of courage and an outcry for life. We can easily replace the shark with a gun or a grenade, and the tension would still be the same. Nature becomes a game of Russian roulette, and the dream of life together in paradise becomes an agonizing nightmare.
A subtle yet somber romantic drama, Waves is profound in small qualities, finely crafted in script and tone. Without being overbearing and loud, Frasco examines the turbulence of a failing relationship, and does so with grace and honesty.
— Chris Clemente