Filmmaker Ma-an Asuncion-Dagñalan on her debut film ‘Blue Room’

Filipino filmmaker Ma-an Asuncion-Dagñalan is like a breath of fresh air in the entertainment industry—simple, soft-spoken, honest and direct.

But don’t let the petite director-writer fool you because she is badass when it comes to making films. She wants her films to speak the truth and she loves to do social and political films.

Her debut feature film, “Blue Room,” speaks for itself. Corrupt policemen. Police brutality. A bunch of spoiled privileged youngsters. Drugs.

Here in Los Angeles to attend the LA Femme International Film Festival (October 19-22 in Beverly Hills) which is geared towards women-created media for global audiences, Asuncion-Dagñalan proudly shared that she is the only and the first Filipina filmmaker to join and be featured in the festival where her “Blue Room” will be screened on October 21 at 8:00 p.m. at the Regal Cinema in downtown LA.

“I am so excited about the LA Femme International Festival because I will be able to meet not only filmmakers in the US but also from all over the world. I am also happy that I can directly talk to Leslie LaPage who is the founder of the festival. She is very helpful. I have a lot of questions. I hope we will get more audiences for our film and hopefully, a distributor so it may be screened here in the US and outside,” she told us when we interviewed her in person.

Her film, which made her win Best Director in the Cinemalaya Film Festival 2022 and the 71st FAMAS, follows an indie progressive rock band called Rebel Rebel, whose members are composed of privileged teenagers who after getting their biggest break at a prestigious local music festival, enjoyed a celebratory drinking session.

Photo courtesy of Ma-an Asuncion-Dagnalan

Elijah Canlas, Juan Karlos Labajo, Nour Hooshmand, and Harvey Bautista in ‘Blue Room.’ Photo courtesy of Ma-an Asuncion-Dagnalan

After they get stopped by the police while driving, they are arrested for alleged drug possession and are hauled into a “Blue Room,” which is actually a VIP detention area where they can bribe their way out. The police ask them to call their rich parents or friends to bail them out for a million pesos each.

Well received at the recently held SOHO International Film Festival, “Blue Room” was inspired by true events. “I attended Armando Lao’s ‘Found Story’ workshop in 2010 where we were looking for a subject matter that is based on real events. Fortunately, I met a band member who told me the story of the Blue Room and I got interested in it. I asked him if I could make a story about it, and he agreed. I interviewed the whole band and they willingly cooperated,” she said.

Asuncion-Dagñalan, who missed attending the SOHO International Film Festival, admitted that she got so jealous of actor Harvey Bautista and producer Will Fredo Manalang who were able to attend the festival.

“I heard from both of them that audiences were so elated and happy after watching ‘Blue Room.’ At first, I didn’t know how different nationalities would react, but I was just so happy that they loved the movie. I am proud that we were able to tell our story of social justice in our country. I am glad that they were entertained by our movie,” she said.

Other members of the cast aside from Bautista include Juan Karlos Labajo, Nour Hooshmand, Keoni Jin, Elijah Canlas, and veteran actor Soliman Cruz.

Photo courtesy of Ma-an Asuncion-Dagnalan

Juan Karlos Labajo, Elijah Canlas, Harvey Bautista, Keoni Jin, and Nour Hooshmand in ‘Blue Room.’ Photo courtesy of Ma-an Asuncion-Dagnalan

On the casting of the band members, she revealed that “(Acoustic guitarist and vocalist) JK (Juan Karlos) was already in my mind. I saw his music video. I watched his teleserye and I know he can act. I listened to his music, and it also has a socio-political message.

“Harvey was suggested by Harlene. He is also a drummer. But he also auditioned, and he gave good answers to Carlo Obispo who interviewed him. Carlo is not only one of my co-writers but my creative producer as well. And before Harvey auditioned, I also did my research on him and his acting. He really plays the drums, and he is also a good actor.

“(Bassist) Nour was suggested to me and so I checked her Instagram, and she is into jazz music and bass. I had a gut feeling that she would do well and could easily adapt so I got her.

“(Keytarist and vocalist) Elijah also was gut feel. I did not audition him. I had a feeling that he was good. And he is.

“I didn’t have the Christian character yet and I asked Jazz Nicolas (who is one of the composers in the film) if he knows any teenager who plays the guitar, and he said my son. So, I got Keoni Jin. He is very raw, no experience in acting but I had a gut feeling that he learns fast because he is a good listener. He can follow instructions easily.”

Photo courtesy of Ma-an Asuncion-Dagnalan

Soliman Cruz in ‘Blue Room.’ Photo courtesy of Ma-an Asuncion-Dagnalan

As for Soliman Cruz whom we saw in his lead role in the Romanian film “To the North” at the Venice Film Festival, Asuncion-Dagñalan said that she had worked with him before.

“He was also the acting coach of my husband who is also a director-actor. I am a long friend of Sol. We know the caliber of his acting, so we just approached him for the role of the chief of police,” she said.

Trained under Ricky Lee and Armando Lao for scriptwriting, she said that both mentors have a totally different approach. “With Sir Armando, you can do anything under the sun. With Sir Ricky, he wants it to be based on a true story. Although they have different styles, they are the same when it comes to discipline. They both want you to think out of the box, to make it edgier and unique. They want you to be true to your voice and not pretentious. It is easy to write ‘Blue Room’ because that is the world, I am living in. I am into human rights and the social system. I love to fight for that. I want to be honest and true.”

For someone who has joined the SOHO International Film Festival and the LA Femme International Film Festival, she encourages all young and aspiring female filmmakers to join film festivals. “Do what you love to do and chase your dreams. It is hard for a woman to follow her dream sometimes because there are many detours in a woman’s life especially in the Philippines – you get a boyfriend, a husband, have a family. Unlike men who just goes straight and pursues their career.

“I am lucky to have a very supportive and understanding husband (Michael Angelo “Mike” Dagñalan). He was the one who encouraged me to study scriptwriting and cinematography. He is not competitive at all.” The husband and wife have collaborated in the past for the films “Layang Bilanggo” and “Paglaya sa Tanikala.”

Photo: Janet Susan R. Nepales

Photo: Janet Susan R. Nepales

She added that she is looking forward to the launch of the new Manila International Film Festival (MIFF) in Hollywood on November 2 at the Directors Guild of America.

“It will promote not only Philippine movies but also Filipino talents. Plus, Korean movies are so popular in the US so hopefully the MIFF will be able to help promote the Philippine movies, the filmmakers, and not only the Filipino talents but also Philippine art itself. That would be a big help to the Filipinos,” she said.

As for her future project, she shared that the Cultural Center of the Philippines just commissioned her to direct a music video. “They started it last year, this ‘Himig Himbing: Mga Heleng Atin’ to promote the country’s indigenous lullabies and they will highlight the different lullabies from the various regions. I was assigned the Kapampangan lullaby because I am Kapampangan. I was assigned to finish it on October 28 and it will be launched on November 5.”

Aside from that, she is also getting ready to research her new film about nurses in America who were discriminated against. “I plan to interview the nurses here in LA before I write the script.”

As for the young Filipina filmmakers, she advises them to “focus on what you exactly want to do as a director. Don’t lose hope. There will be a lot of challenges and detours but continue to strive harder… and pray a lot.”

—MGP, GMA Integrated News

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