Lav Diaz’s auteurist break through, Batang West Side is among his more accessible efforts despite its daunting (if “concise” by later standards) five hour running time. Ostensibly moving away from the director’s beloved Philippines, this noir inflected tale apes a police procedural as New Jersey based Filipino cop Mijares (Joel Torre) investigates the murder of a young countryman but is forced to face his own darkness in the process. Diaspora, homeland and nationhood fight it out among those who’ve sought brighter futures overseas but for this collection of young Filipinos abroad all they’ve found is more of home, pursued by ghosts which can never be outrun. These young people muse on ways to save the Philippines even as they’ve seemingly abandoned it but for the central pair of lost souls at its centre, a young one and an old one, abandonment is the wound which can never be healed.
Lonely New Jersey police officier Mijares calls his ex-wife out of the blue after two years but has nothing in particular to say to her or the two children currently asleep in bed he no longer sees. His father abandoned the family when he was only seven years old leaving his mother bereft and searching, neglecting her child in her grief-like extremity. Mijares’s mother joined him in America, but has been in a vegetative state for the last few years meaning Mijares is more or less alone though surrounded by familiarity in an area dense with fellow Filipino exiles.
Called to a snow covered crime scene, Mijares discovers the body of a young Filipino boy he often saw around West Side Avenue and whose face, if not name, he knew. Hanzel Harana (Yul Servo) is just one of many young Filipinos trying to make a future away from home albeit one with a series of advantages and disadvantages which have brought him to this unhappy end. Hanzel rejoined the mother who abandoned him (also) at seven years old to provide a better life for the family by earning American wages. Now the wife of a wealthy old man to whom she is more carer than life partner, Hanzel’s mother Lolita reclaimed her oldest son in order to “save” him from the dangers of a Philippine adolescence. Nursing a broken heart, Hanzel came to the new world but brought his old habits with him. Despite a brief period of personal growth helped along by his grandfather’s sagacious council, Hanzel falls in with a bad crowd promising a glorious new Philippine future through the wonder drug, Shabu.
Mothers and motherland mingle in the imagination as Mijares is haunted by strange dreams of his broken hearted mother, desperately chasing the elusive ghost of her lost love at the expense of that of her very present son. His mother’s condition requires him to undergo frequent sessions with a strange psychologist who is primarily interested in his dream state believing that dreams are a kind of inner scream which need to be exorcised and laid to rest. Mijares dreams of his mother but also of his teeth falling out which, apparently, is code for the death of someone close but the only corpse so far is that of the young boy, Hanzel Harana, whom Mijares did not know yet felt some kind of invisible kinship with.
The two men mirror each other, one young and ruined by hope and the other older and defeated by its continuing failures. Delving deeper into Hanzel’s story Mijares finds much to echo his own as Hanzel remains preoccupied with the idea of family and restoring his long absent mother to his Philippine home. Having been brought to the States away from a life of dissipation, Hanzel struggles as a lone figure in an alien landscape, unexpectedly bonding with his paraplegic step-father but locking horns with his mother’s live in lover and fellow Filipino exile Bartolo (Arthur Acuña) – jealous, violent, and manipulative yet, perhaps, the embodiment of a certain kind of dangerous masculinity.
Hanzel is not a Bartolo and this kind of macho posturing is not in his more introspective nature. Despite professing that he doesn’t read books, Hanzel is eventually enlivened by his grandfather’s doctrine of continuing education even picking up a love for computers which could have led to a very successful career path in the rapidly developing tech world of the early 21st century but the honest way is hard and slow and Hanzel is in a hurry. Losing patience with his grandfather’s kindly ministrations and his mother’s steely rebuffing of his long held dream, Hanzel loses hope and allows himself to buy into the half-baked theories of the Avenue’s other Filipino kids with their Shabu based ideas of revolution and eventual descent into drug infused violence and confusion.
Hanzel’s grandfather has a few words of advice for the not quite young policeman. Like Hanzel the Philippines are directionless, all their heroes’ efforts have gone to waste. It’s up to the younger generation to heal it while there is still time. Yet it’s not only future of which Diaz is in search but truth found only through exposing lies. Mijares interviews the witnesses turning up differences and conflicting testimonies each time, leaving him with no concrete solution to the central mystery bar personal conviction. Mijares’ own convictions have been wavering, his “American” persona is a construct, like that of many exiles attempting to throw off past trauma with a new identity in a new land. Dreams do not lie even if they do not quite tell the truth and so Mijares’ increasingly violent visions in which Hanzel dies a thousand bloody deaths at his own hand eventually expose this long buried secret which lies at the core both of his own identity and that of his nation, still unwilling to meet his eye.
A man cannot outrun his central truths and carries his culture with him even as he claims to discard it. New identities only mask old wounds, eventually fracturing unable to bear the weight placed upon them by the expectation of place. Shooting this time in muted colour, capturing the low light neon glare of a New Jersey winter Diaz switches to black and white for his eerie dreamscape whilst presenting us with a final moment of truth and reconciliation offered via video. Bleak yet oddly hopeful, Batang West Side is a statement of intent from Diaz, a cinematic quest for essential truth, uncompromising in scope and unflinching in its gaze.