I was highly anticipating Beautiful Pain (Redha), a Malaysian film with English subtitles that tells the tale of a family living with autism. While it was shown early July at SM Cinemas nationwide, I made sure to see it on its first day of showing because commercial cinemas tend to pull out non-commercially-performing films, a business call I understand. True enough, there wasn't much clamor for the film despite social media marketing efforts done by the Autism Society of the Philippines or a featured report and story on national TV via ABS-CBN's TV Patrol. On the day we watched the film, there were only four people in the big cinema: myself, my wife Brenda, and our kids Julia, 10 years old, and Rich Enzo, 6 years old.
The film opens with a scene depicting a young, happy family enjoying the picture-perfect white sand beach of Malaysia’s Redang Island. Slowly, you watch how the mother, Alina (June Lojong), notices that her son, Danial (Harith Haziq), is unlike most children his age, and she could not comprehend or explain why. She relates her concern to her husband, Razlan (Namron), but he dismisses any idea of a problem and insists Danial is just like him, a late bloomer.
But Alina gets more worried each day as she observes her son doing repetitive movements, unable to make eye contact, speaking in a foreign language but not necessarily communicating, and being easily bothered and distracted by noise. She seeks the help of her sister to see a doctor in Kuala Lumpur, and then it finally hit her: Danial has autism. It is the beginning of a painful journey as Alina tries to find a cure for her son’s condition while trying desperately to reach out to her husband who is in denial. Will autism make them strong as a family or will it tear them apart?
Our daughter Julia has been diagnosed with Global Developmental Delay (GDD), and that makes her fall under the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Although there is still much confusion about her diagnosis, the management of her condition matters more to us than the diagnosis itself -- and management includes people’s expectations from her as a 10-year-old normal-looking girl.
Upon learning our daughter may be different from other children, my wife and I went through a similar process that Alina and Razlan go through in the film. There was confusion at first. The denial came in piece by piece. We asked ourselves, “Why did this happen to us, to my child?”
Julia was able to walk by herself, without assistance, at age 3, and we thought she was just developing slower than other children. Her hyperactive behavior? It was natural for her age. But, as the days wore on, the fear crept in. When the doctors dropped the news, it was like a bomb so loud it numbed all our senses. How could something so perfect as my daughter have such a confusing developmental condition?
We did not go through a long denial -- we accepted the diagnosis, but not the prognosis -- so we could always cling on to hope that things will still change for the better.
The author with daughter Julia, wife Brenda, and son Rich Enzo
I have embraced my daughter’s uniqueness. Her beautiful smile is enough to make me happy. She is an angel in so many ways. She is pretty like her mom, a comic like her dad, different like everyone else, and pure and incapable of committing sin. But society demands for the norm, making us long still for a "normal" child -- not for our sake, but hers.
I was never in denial. But I grieved for the loss of a normal child. I never questioned why; I only asked how -- how can we make her understand the world as it is? How can I love her so she would know that she is loved?
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The greater challenge is, how can we join her in her world and see the universe the way she sees and understands it?
God may have loved us so much that she gifted us with a daughter like Julia, to whom we can immensely outpour such unconditional love. I must admit, though, that there is the pain. It is painful to see a future so uncertain for our daughter. It makes me fearful to think that no one might love her the way we do. What’s going to happen to her when we are gone?
It is then that we realize that our daughter is our pain -- a very beautiful one, at that. Her condition has made me “resign to God’s will,” to borrow a line from the film. It has also made me more compassionate of others on the same journey.
“I have one just like yours” is a memorable line in the film that will resonate with parents with kids with autism.
Autism is real and not some mistake of nature or supernatural force. Towards the end and in its entirety, Beautiful Pain can unmask one truth that is right in front of us, but which we continually deny as a civilized society. The lack of awareness is the cause of many problems surrounding the condition, like proper healthcare, access to government facilities and systems, and understanding in general. But the film also gives much hope: there is life after diagnosis, and autism is not the end of the parents’ dreams for their child. Autism can even be a start of more meaningful relationships and friendships.
In my case, it was when I fully accepted our situation that I felt God’s painful caress. More importantly, along with acceptance came affirmation -- that all is, and will be, well. In the darkness of every situation, there will come a great light. And the movie Beautiful Pain shows that light -- silently, painfully, beautifully.
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Watch the international trailer of Beautiful Pain:
Rizal is a multi-media arts practitioner specializing in scriptwriting, print writing and editing, theater arts, and filmmaking. He taught Media and Communication, Scriptwriting, TV Production and Media Research at Colegio de San Juan de Letran Manila and De La Salle College of Saint Benilde (DLS-CSB). He regularly writes film reviews for the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP-CINEMA), and also teaches Theater Arts to Children with Special Needs at Stepping Stone Academy.