Batang West Side (Lav Diaz, 2001)

batang-west-sideLav 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.


 

An Investigation on the Night That Won’t Forget (Pagsisiyasat Sa Gabing Ayaw Lumimot, Lav Diaz, 2012)

an-investigation-on-the-night-that-wont-forgetIf Elegy to the Visitor from the Revolution was a poetic attempt to tackle the outpouring of grief which followed the murders of film critics Alexis Tioseco and Nika Bohinc, An Investigation On the Night That Won’t Forget (Pagsisiyasat Sa Gabing Ayaw Lumimot) is its mirror image – the somber and naturalistic testimony of one who was left behind, searching for resolution but finding only more questions and ongoing suffering as circumstances conspire to prolong the agony. As usual, Diaz uses the events to comment more widely on the often melancholy history of his country but also on the nature of narrative, time and memory in their necessity for the attempt to create order from a series of otherwise incomprehensible events.

Preceded by a title card reading Part 1: The Cradle of Memory, the central 55 minutes of the film consists of one unbroken static camera shot of a man talking to camera, recounting an incident which he is unable to forget yet cannot remember clearly. The man is Erwin Romulo, editor and best friend of Alexis Tioseco, occupying a chair next to a desk in his own office surrounded by books and papers, records and ephemera of everyday life. Romulo begins to tell the story that night and of its continuing wake alternating between English and Tagalog, gesticulating and fidgeting as his story becomes painful to tell.

At one point Romulo says that he’s glad they’re recording this because it’s already becoming so difficult to remember. Though he speaks uninterrupted for almost an hour (save for a brief moment in which he leaves the chair in search of water), Romulo occasionally goes off on tangents or pauses to explain something else, allowing the events to unfold as he remembers them. The camera becomes a cradle for his memory, a safe place of deposit where his own recollections can rest without fear of change for all eternity. Perfect and incorruptible, cinema stands witness to a time and a place to which it affords a kind of immortality in ever extending moments.

Romulo’s testimony concludes with a lament for the continuing absence of his friend, for the unlived future so cruelly severed by a violent, selfish act. This leads us into the second segment, preceded by a title card reading Part 2: Cradle of the Night. Beginning with a series of ordinary street scenes, the soundscape is soon broken by the reading of a long poem entitled Lullaby of Memory. Culminating with the line “Recollection is the final destination of justice,” the poem emphasises the essential melancholy which colours each of Diaz’s films in its sorrowful fatalism. The images are eventually accompanied by a great river of light as some kind of procession takes place, candles lighting the way as large numbers of people snake onward through the narrow streets. If the lights imply hope the poem seems to reject them as the procession represents a “failure of life” and the poet remarks that she “did not know how this life would fail me”. The lights go out, only to return, their meaning seeming lost and hollow.

Shooting again in low grade black and white, Diaz erases himself from the frame in refusing interaction or reaction to his subject even if there is clearly another human presence to whom Romulo is communicating his tale other than the cold eyes of the camera. Memory is a painful thing but necessary. The camera cannot ease the burden, but it can add to the experience, solidify a narrative which both buries and exposes its essential truths. The night is unending and unforgiving, the investigation may never be concluded. Those who take part in the procession carry a light in front of them but it seems to offer little illumination, the path is endless and leads only to suffering and loneliness.


 

Elegy to the Visitor from the Revolution (Elehiya Sa Dumalaw Mula Sa Himagsikan, Lav Diaz, 2011)

elegy-to-the-visitor-from-the-revolutionLav Diaz is many things but he’s not especially known for his brevity. Elegy to the Visitor From the Revolution (Elehiya Sa Dumalaw Mula Sa Himagsikan) is something of a departure in that regard as it runs a scant eighty minutes but is, nevertheless, imbued with the director’s constant themes of loss, melancholy and despair conveyed across a tripartite structure peopled by three very different yet interconnected sets of characters. To say “only” eighty minutes long, yet Elegy to the Visitor From the Revolution first began as a one minute short, intended to form a part of Nikalexis.MOV – an omnibus dedicated to the memory of film critics Alexis Tioseco and Nika Bohinc tragically killed during a home invasion. Diaz’ film, however, outgrew its origins to become a stand alone feature in its own right.

Split into three sections, with the final preceding the second, Elegy to the Visitor From the Revolution begins with a long sequence in which a prostitute tries and fails to attract trade while a gang of crooks go about their business in another part of town and a man sadly strums his guitar for an audience of one. The Visitor from the Revolution arrives dressed in the clothes of a hundred years before, wandering through marketplaces and wading into the water, observing what has become of the country she and her compatriots fought so hard to free from the colonial yoke. What she finds there breaks her heart – her people are just as lost and miserable as they were before all of her struggles.

After a while our stories intersect and we discover that our musician is a dream or recurrent vision within the mind of the prostitute. He plays for himself alone but the Visitor finds him, listens to his song and then silences his sound to provide her own. She sings the song of a broken heart, of a figure alone in a field holding a promise waiting to be fulfilled. She knows feelings have changed, that worries run deep and that hope has vanished but, she pleads, hold on to our dream, to your promise, and stay true to your vow. In the latter part of the song, Diaz gives us one of his rare super closeups as the Visitor’s face remains impassive and unmoving while the music plays around her. As the prostitute recounts whilst describing her dream, the Visitor looks out at us with eyes full of sorrow, weighed down by all these centuries of despair. Nothing has changed, nothing will change and she does not know who to blame or what to do except to continue the fight even in the face of this seeming impossibility.

Shot in Diaz’ familiar black and white with low grade cameras, Elegy to the Visitor From the Revolution is a weary ballad from one heartbroken revolutionary to another. All here are victims of their circumstances, trapped within an atmosphere of corruption and despair which provides them with no hope of escape. The prostitute cannot ply her trade, the criminals do not get the money from their botched bank job, and the musician plays alone – his song unheard, his pain unshared. The past is ever present, hanging heavily yet invisible over each of them yet the future is equally oblique and untouchable. When you have no more hope, all there is left to do is sing. The struggle goes on, despite all of the setbacks and despair the desire for real change is hard to kill. A lament for the unresolved past, Elegy to the Visitor From the Revolution is also a call to arms or a hymn of praise to those who continue to sing their songs to an empty room maintaining the faith that the audience will someday appear.


 

Melancholia (Lav Diaz, 2008)

melancholia“Why is there so much madness and too much sorrow in the world? Is happiness just a concept? Is living just a process to measure man’s pain?” asks a key character towards the end of this eight hour film, but he might as well be speaking for the film itself as its director, Lav Diaz, delivers another long form state of the nation address. This is a ruined land peopled by ghosts, unable to come to terms with their grief and robbing themselves of their identities in an effort to circumvent their pain. Raw yet lyrical, Diaz’s lament seems wider than just for his damaged homeland as each of its sorrowful, disillusioned warriors attempts to reacquaint themselves with world devoid of hope.

Loosely divided into three segments, the film begins in the present as the three protagonists encounter each other in the picturesque northern town of Sagada. A prostitute, a nun, and a pimp each is later revealed to be living under a temporary assumed identity in an experimental “immersion” programme designed to help them deal with their traumatic past as former revolutionary fighters, each of whom has also lost a spouse to the struggle.

A short while later, the “pimp” Julian (Perry Dizon) and the “prostitute” Alberta (Angeli Bayani) have returned to their “real” lives as bourgeois Manila intellectuals – he a publisher and she a teacher. Julian is haunted by memories of his late wife, Patricia, whose sad song of longing echoes in the forests, while Alberta is preoccupied with her adoptive daughter, Hannah (Yanyan Taa), who has run away and embarked on a life of prostitution. Rina (Malaya), Sagada’s nun, remains a ghostly, peripheral presence – another truth neither is willing to acknowledge.

After giving us these two attempts to live with it, Diaz takes us back to the past as Alberta’s lost husband, Renato (Roeder), along with two other fighters hides in the jungle from government forces intent on routing them out. Trapped with no possibility of salvation the three men begin to go mad while Renato later breaks away and records his inner struggle in a diary which no one will ever read.

The weight of the past with all of its myriad traumas becomes too heavy to bear, fracturing the internal consistency of each of our three protagonists, crushing their sense of individual identity in a bid to destroy an entire culture. Unable to face their unresolved grief, each has absented themselves from themselves in an attempt to address their pain and confusion. This bizarre kind of therapy designed by Julian is intended to remove their sadness altogether by forcing them to live as other people but their sojourn in Sagada proves “too immersive” according to Alberta in a later sequence. Rina, the nun, is too greatly exposed by her new role, seeing everything through the eyes of innocence only further compounding her sense of loss and disillusionment with the cruelty of the world.

Alberta tries to face her trauma through endless searching for her husband’s body and through caring for the orphaned daughter of other victims of the military regime but her efforts are often frustrated by a lack of support from those around her. Julian, having tried and failed to cast off his painful identity, has emerged hollow and defined by an absence of self. Having penned a book neatly echoing the unheard lamentations of Renato in which sadness becomes the defining quality of the world, giving birth to art and music, poetry and cinema, Julian is now the god of melancholy, worshipped by tortured artists everywhere but trapped within a personal purgatory from which escape seems impossible.

Shot once again in Diaz’s trademark black and white with low grade digital cameras, Melancholia is indeed imbued with sadness and a crushing weight of the unresolved past. Alberta, left alone, continues searching in vain just as the beautifully lonely lyrics of Patricia’s song lament, trapped by hope but unable to find a resolution for all that she has so far lost. Raw and angry, there’s a kind of defeated resignation which fills Melancholia, an absence of hope that sees that nothing will change – this world is hell and the sadness cannot be cured. Julian gives in to madness and the allure of illusion but finds little comfort in it, moving away from Alberta who alone is still prepared to go on searching, yet hers seems like the unluckier fate, perpetually trapped in this hellish purgatory awaiting the friendly hands to pull her out seemingly never to arrive.


A scene which makes much more sense when you’ve seen the whole film (English subtitles)

Heremias (Book One: The Legend of the Lizard Princess) (Unang aklat: Ang alamat ng prinsesang bayawak, Lav Diaz, 2006)

heremiasLav Diaz has never been accused of directness, but even so his 8.5hr epic, Heremias (Book 1: The Legend of the Lizard Princess) (Unang aklat: Ang alamat ng prinsesang bayawak) is a curiously symbolic piece, casting its titular hero in the role of the prophet Jeremiah, adrift in an odyssey of faith. With long sections playing out in near real time, extreme long distance shots often static in nature, and black and white photography captured on low res digital video which makes it almost impossible to detect emotional subtlety in the performances of its cast, Heremias is a challenging prospect yet an oddly hypnotic, ultimately moving one.

Diaz begins with a long, static take of a roadway in which a convoy of pedlars is parked while the modern world passes them by in the form of speeding motor cars. Heremias (Ronnie Lazaro) is a member of this timeless nomadic community, travelling along the road selling handicrafts from a cart pulled by a cow. The other pedlars seem worried about Heremias, they describe him as seeming “unwell” and are concerned because he hasn’t been eating. Eventually Heremias makes the fateful decision to go his own way, leaving the safety of the caravan behind to tread his own path. Yet what he finds out on his own amounts to trouble and strife beginning with the theft of his cart and ending with his overhearing a gang of teenage boys outline their plan to rape and murder a local girl.

Diaz spends the first few hours of the film immersing us in the world of the caravan with its routines of singing and eating broken with children’s lullabies and games of basketball. Heremias, however, wants something more than his simple life of community and the security of the familiar. Rather than simply retread familiar routes alone, Heremias follows a solitary, untravelled path which promises little more than aloneness. His cow, in a fine supporting performance, is often less certain of the wisdom of his master’s decision and makes his displeasure known, though Heremias is unwavering. When the cow is suddenly removed from the picture, its absence is very much felt as Heremias is left entirely alone without hope or guidance.

On trying to report the crime to the authorities, Heremias finds that all of his faith in the rule of law has been misplaced. Though the police begin to investigate, it’s clear that they have little interest in solving the crime, eventually asking for a sizeable bribe to complete the job. Later, when Heremias hears the terrible plan of the drunken young men, he tries the police again but finds them unwilling to help as the young men in question are sons of important people. Finally Heremias turns to the church but the priest is unwilling to offer anything more than prayer to save the life of a vulnerable young girl. Heremias, disappointed and with his faith shaken to the core, is left with no other recourse than to strike a bargain with God. Fasting and wandering, Heremias hopes that God will save the girl whom he seems incapable of helping in any other way though Diaz offers no clue if his faith will be repaid.

The film’s title comes from the name of a town which Heremias passes through. A couple once lived there and had a beautiful daughter who was abducted and never seen again, save perhaps for a baby lizard appearing at her parents’ home. This story repeats itself in that of Helena – the young woman who will be raped and murdered according to the tale Heremias overhears whilst watching the young men waste their time on drugs and alcohol inside an abandoned home. Old stories seem to resurface in new but no less tragic ways as the lizard who can tell good men from bad gives way to a discussion of the Japanese who hid in the forests after the war, too ashamed (as the villagers describe it) to return home. Among the executed soldiers was a colonel, Oshima, but the men can’t decide if the Oshima who died was the bad Oshima or another one altogether or if the bad Oshima was really bad at all – he did, so they say, design the water sanitation system at the school to the great benefit of everyone.

Heremias wanders alone through the difficult terrain, falling ever deeper into despair. Though generally impassive, Heremias is allowed two great moments of emotion – the first as he’s overtaken by the enormity of the loss of his cart and cow, and then after his greatest test which leads him to make his fateful bargain with God. The police have failed him, the priest ignored him, and there’s nothing to say he’ll have any more luck with the invisible protector yet with this last descent into the depths of hopelessness he emerges changed, almost saintly, as he agrees to make a personal sacrifice for only the hope that the girl will be saved from her grizzly fate. Aimlessness gives way to purpose, as Heremias adopts the path of the fallen prophet.

Though the low res cinematography and extreme distance shots add to the film’s alienating approach, there are moments of rare beauty as Diaz captures the natural landscape even as it proves hazardous or threatening to man. Unusual sound design completes the effect as the boys’ loud rock music suddenly cuts out while they detail their heinous plans, or ancient folk songs float through the background, eerily echoing ongoing events. Oblique and detached, Diaz’s lengthy spiritual epic resolutely rejects connection yet the cumulative effect of its distancing approach leads to its ambiguous if ultimately moving conclusion.


Heremias loses his cow (dialogue free)