Filmmakers in attendance.
Andrea A. Walter’s confident feature debut, EMPTY BY DESIGN is a thoughtful exploration of feeling lost between two places. Amidst the urban rhythms of contemporary Manila, Filipino millennials Eric (Osric Chau, who also serves as producer) and Samantha (Rhian Ramos) return home after some time abroad and find themselves drawn together through their mutual loneliness.
After finishing her university education overseas, Sam reluctantly returns to assist her older, pregnant sister, Trish after their parents’ sudden and tragic passing. Her grieving is clouded by a city, and a family, she can barely recognize. Meanwhile, Eric, in town for stunt work on an action movie, feels even more a foreigner. Having been away for a longer period, Eric doesn’t even speak Tagalog anymore, a fact that troubles him when he goes to visit his Lola. Meeting as former classmates, Sam and Eric connect over this shared hollow feeling and, after a late night break-in to their old high school, Sam tells Eric: “I really thought that coming back would feel more like coming home.” It’s a sentiment that pervades Sam and Eric’s personal journeys of self-discovery.
Ramos and Chau imbue Sam and Eric with a quiet isolation as they try and understand how they belong. How is it possible to feel like a foreigner in the very city you grew up in? As writer/director, drawing on her own personal experiences, Walter creates a meditative tone that grants the audience access into the mindsets of both Sam and Eric in ways that never feel suffocating or overbearing. The pace and the stillness of the cinematography give the actors plenty of room to perceptively show us their fears, hesitations, and concerns. There’s no need for a big voiceover explanation or expository scene, Ramos and Chau beautifully convey their nervous remoteness through the quiet moments.
One particularly effective scene is watching Eric visit his Lola, who he worries will not recognize him. He fears she will comment on his loss of the language. But his real concern is what if he doesn’t recognize her. A beautiful moment occurs when Eric’s Lola looks at him and then slowly holds her arm out, the back of her palm pointing towards his head. After a brief hesitation, he grabs her hand and touches it to his forehead. The mano – a gesture that honors elders in the Philippines. You can see Eric’s nervousness wash away from him and the subtlety of Chau’s performance releases the tension felt by the audience.
“How did you get here?” Sam asks, incredulously, of a dog that has wandered into her room while she was sleeping. In this seemingly throwaway line, there’s actual weight behind her question. As Sam finds herself in a place both familiar and foreign, it becomes evident that perhaps she’s lost her sense of self. Sam’s is a story of returning, and reconnecting to, your home. A film where a sense of belonging feels elusive, EMPTY BY DESIGN explores the emotional heaviness of coming back to a place you unknowingly fought so hard to forget. —Jeremy Gaudette
Director, Writer: Andrea A. Walter
Producer: Joann Banaga, Osric Chau, Chris Pang, Dante Basco
Co-Producer: Chad Kennedy
Executive Producer: Jane Basas, Sienna Olaso, Alan Pao
Cast: Osric Chau, Rhian Ramos, Chris Pang, Dante Basco, Madeleine Humphries