“Maybe it would be better if I just disappeared rather than physically be here but feel invisible all the time” the lonely heroine of Dwein Ruedas Baltazar’s Ode to Nothing (Oda sa wala) sadly laments to her only source of comfort, a semi-embalmed corpse. A melancholy meditation on the living death that is existential loneliness, Ode to Nothing takes its alienated heroine on a journey of hope and disappointment as she rediscovers a sense of joy in living only through befriending death.
43-year-old Sonya (Marietta Subong, AKA Pokwang) lives alone with her elderly father (Joonee Gamboa) to whom she barely speaks in a large Spanish-style house which doubles as a moribund funeral home. Short on custom, Sonya’s only frequent visitor is sinister loanshark Theodore (Dido de la Paz) who currently holds the deeds to the house while she struggles to make the interest payments. Meanwhile, she spends her days gazing out of open windows, waiting for the handsome young taho seller to arrive, and listening to an ancient cassette tape of Chinese folksong Mo Li Hua.
The stillness of her life is ruptured late one night when a couple of men arrive with the fresh corpse of an old woman, seemingly having run her over and not wanting the bother of taking her to a hospital seeing as she is already dead. Sonya is dubious. She doesn’t want any trouble either, but needs the money and the custom and so she agrees to take the woman in and see if anyone claims her. No one does, and soon enough the corpse has become a new presence in Sonya’s life and home. She begins to confide in it, dresses it in her mother’s old clothes, and sits it at the dinner table where her father too indulges the illusion, finally talking to her once again as if the family had really been restored.
In an odd way, the corpse guides Sonya back to life. No longer so sullen, her funeral parlour finally attracts some customers while she begins to dress more cheerfully, even dancing and skipping along to Mo Li Hua with girlish enthusiasm. “As you get older, you have more reason to do the things you were too afraid to do when you were younger” she explains to the corpse, outlining a brief overture she just made to Elmer (Anthony Falcon), the taho vendor, whose grandfather she also saw off around three years ago after which Elmer took over the taho vending business.
Taho is perhaps the perfect encapsulation of Sonya’s newfound hopes, wholesome sweetness and easy comfort. The blandness of off-white silken tofu mixed with the gentle colouring of the amibal syrup and sago pearls, like the Jasmine flower of the folksong, seem to symbolise the brief moments of possible happiness in an otherwise dull existence but even within her increasing sense of positivity she perhaps knows her rekindled desire for Elmer and for life is likely go answered. In any case, she falls into the corpse’s lap as if it really were her mother, attributing to it a supernatural power that keeps the corpses flowing and beckons both life and death to her lonely home.
As in any good fairy tale, however, you have to be careful what you wish for. Sonya gets what she wanted, but not at all in the way she wanted it. The corpse betrays her, leaving her bereft once again and entombed inside her own funeral home with the feeling that there is only one way out. Baltazar shoots in 4:3 with the rounded corners of nostalgic 16mm, but the frame cannot help but recall the small window on the surface of a coffin, as if we were peeking in on her still life from some other plane. Sonya is, in many ways, already dead, trapped in a moribund and hopeless world where even the fragmentary past is being slowly taken away from her – the broken cassette tape, the rapidly depleting furniture, Elmer’s crushing absence. She confesses that she’s afraid of the dark and of being alone, tired enough of her resignation to abandonment to embrace a corpse which can, of course, never leave you. It can, however, disappoint as all false idols will. A melancholy exploration of loneliness, defeat, and despair, Baltazar’s whimsical drama is a haunting ode to emptiness but one that clings sadly to life and hope even as the night draws in.
Original trailer (English subtitles)
Mo Li Hua