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Netflix's 'Keys to the Heart' is another heartfelt Filipino family drama that sheds light on autism

By Yoniel Acebuche Published Oct 05, 2023 2:01 pm

Filipinos are known for their strong family ties, which is often reflected in mass media. Filipino filmmakers often explore different family stories, shedding light on the unique qualities of Filipino families. One of those movies is the local adaptation of the 2018 South Korean dramedy, Keys to the Heart which originally starred Lee Byung Hun and Park Jung Min. 

Helmed by Cebuano director Kerwin Go, the movie follows the story of Joma (Zanjoe Marudo), a troubled, lonely, and down-on-his-luck boxer who moves in with his long lost mother Sylvia (Dolly de Leon) and his autistic pianist brother Jayjay (Elijah Canlas).

“It’s a celebration of family—unconventional families, blended families. It could be a family that you adopt and friends who become family and neighbors who actually become just as important,” Go said at the See What’s Next: Philippines 2023 local titles launch. 

Go said that the film is relatable to Filipino viewers as it beautifully captures the hopes and dreams of a simple but extraordinary family reunited by love and music.

"It is very relatable sa mga Pinoy because it is about family. It's about redemption, forgiveness, and reconnecting with [a] long lost friend, and those are universal things. There's also a lot of music in it and sports, you have the comedy," he added.

Raising awareness

In addition to exploring family dynamics, the movie also highlights autism awareness in the Philippines, using the more accurate and respectful term "high-functioning autism" instead of the outdated and offensive term "retarded."

Michelle Dee, who is a known advocate for autism awareness, called this project an achieved goal in her acting career. 

"It's been one of my goals as an actress to be part of a film that promotes inclusivity. This really highlights how talented these individuals are [and] how much potential they have," Dee said who played the role of Annette, a rich pianist who regained her musical interest when he met Jayjay. 

She also said that advocating for autism awareness is her lifelong mission, and she feels connected to the members of the autism community because she has two brothers with autism. Participating in the movie was a reminder of why she advocates for it, and one of the reasons why she decided to compete in Miss Universe again.

"Advocating for autism awareness is a fulfilled life for [me]. I have 2 siblings from the autism spectrum—one older, one younger," she said, adding that through this film, "we can start so much better conversation about autism [and] spread so much awareness and education." 

Canlas, on his part, also regards the project as his dream role, noting the physical and mental challenges he encountered while portraying his character.

Among his preparations are watching related movies to study the characters, even watching the original Korean film, and joining seminars and immersion about the autism spectrum. The 23-year-old actor hopes the Filipinos will be educated more about the matter to remove the stigma.

"I hope [in] the Philippines, mawala na yung stigma around it and mas mabigyan ng focus at sistema ang mga nasa spectrum," he said. 

Elijah Canlas as JayJay

A fresh take on the original film

As the director of the Filipino adaptation, Go admitted that it was a challenging and pressure-filled experience. He said that he was especially motivated to do better, knowing that this type of film is often compared to the original.

"If you adapt something, if you will not make things as good, or even better, there is no point in doing it. I wanted to do a better job," he said. 

He continued, "In the end, I want to be selfish and see what kind of movie I would make and that is my compass instead of trying to listen to influence from outside."

Marudo also admits the challenge of starring in a local adaptation. But with the diligence and dedication of the team and the cast, everything went "smoothly" while producing the film, he said.

"Yung pressure andun kasi nga medyo sensitive yung topic ng pelikula. Akala ko magiging mahirap kung paano magiging malinis siyang tatapusin pero hindi eh. Ang ganda ng flow from start to finish, maayos yung pagkakaset-up ng production, kung paano namin isho-shoot yung per scene. Ganda ng continuity ng emotion namin," the actor said.

He continued, "At least [in] the whole film, makalimutan nila yung original at kumapit sila sa mga character na binuo namin para in the end, masabi nila na adaptation pala ito."

Keys to the Heart is now streaming on Netflix.