“Use your mind not your emotions” the hotheaded youngster of Lav Diaz’ Genus Pan (Lahi, Hayop) is repeatedly told, perhaps ironically by an earnest man of faith. Diaz’ shortest work in quite some time at a comparatively trim 156 minutes, Genus Pan is also among his most accessible in its seeming directness but carries with it hidden depths in its questioning of the “unevolved” human psyche, no better than an ape unable to overcome its baser instincts or cure the curse of human selfishness in which the only way to escape oppression is by becoming an oppressor.
This is what Andres (Don Melvin Boongaling) fears has happened to his sometime friend, Baldo (Nanding Josef). As the film opens, the men are collecting their pay but as is customary the money is depleted before it even enters their hands with so many charges and deductions symptomatic of a world of normalised exploitation. Baldo found jobs at the goldmine for the young Andres and his old friend Paulo (Bart Guingona) but expects a cut of their pay as a brokerage fee, money Andres is loathe to give him both on principle and because he needs it to pay for medical treatment for his ailing sister. Baldo, however, is unsympathetic accusing the young man of ingratitude and disrespect. The three men are to travel back to their home village together on a boat Baldo has paid for, instructing the boatman to drop them at the far end of the island in order to avoid having to pay any more “fees” to the various authorities they may otherwise encounter in town, after which they will journey on foot through the forest.
The forest itself is a primal place in which man is most aware he is also an animal. This fact is perhaps brought home to the men thanks to a broadcast received on Paulo’s radio in which a psychologist expounds on the idea that the human brain is largely underdeveloped, the marking of a developed mind a predisposition towards altruism. There is not so much difference, he argues, in the mind of an average human with that of an ape, “Genus Pan”, ruled by its basest instincts of selfishness and violence. Left alone in the forest and forced into mutual dependency, the differences between the three men each in their own way archetypes begin to strain their relationship. Paulo, a deeply religious man who spends most of his time reading the bible, is the peace maker but is also hiding a dark secret which perhaps informs his unexpectedly cynical advice to the earnest Andres who declares himself sick of his world of constant corruption, unwilling to be “a witness to this kind of dirt all my life”. Andres resents Baldo not only for the practical impact of his attempts to extort him, but that he has given in to the world’s venality and become another oppressor just like everyone else. Paulo advises him to use his head not his heart which would doubtless tell him that resistance is futile, but even in his nobility Andres cannot escape his rage at this infinitely feudal world in which a powerful few carry untold authority. He alone raises concerns about conditions at the goldmine where being buried alive is not an uncommon occurrence, not to mention the other mysterious deaths and disappearances, and longs for answers as to the murder of his brother he suspects for refusing to pay bribes to the local authorities, along with the spurious imprisonment of a local woman, the rape of a pair of sisters, and abuses against an indigenous mountain community.
At the forest’s edge, Paulo reveals to him what it might have cost to escape his oppression as a member of a circus ruled by a cruel and sadistic tyrant, lamenting that in truth they were never able to escape Hugaw Island the ironic name of which apparently means “dirt”, given to it under the Japanese occupation in which it housed a comfort women station where women kidnapped from surrounding islands were forced into sexual slavery. The action shifting to another three men, the oppressors the Captain (Popo Diaz), Sergeant (Noel Sto. Domingo), and the least “developed” mind of all the calculating thug Inggo (Joel Saracho), further history of the island is revealed in its past as a smuggling hub unfairly defamed by foreign powers who spread rumours of its dangers to keep the curious away. Inggo longs to get his hands on the “jar of truth”, a burden later entrusted to Baldo’s daughter Mariposa (Hazel Orencio) who can move only very slowly yet is often carrying tremendous weight.
Shooting in his familiar style, monochromatic static camera and long takes, Diaz’ shocking shift to handheld to dramatise false testimony as Inggo conspires against Andres to quell his rebellion hints at the irrational instability of “truth” and its potential for misuse at the hands of men like Inggo. A lone holdout against post-colonial feudal oppression, Andres’ refusal to capitulate cannot stand. As Paulo had warned him, he is a threat to the social order. The “smart” ones play along, and then like Baldo they join in while the Inggos of the world continue to prosper in their smug and heartless cruelty. “The island people are mute” a bereaved mother laments, “fear has taken over”. Ending on a note of intense anxiety, Genus Pan suggests that the civility we believe separates man from beast is at best paper thin while resistance is met only with futility when those in power are free to act with absolute impunity.
Genus Pan streams in the UK 11th October, 5.30pm to 14th October, 5.30pm as part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival.
Original trailer (English subtitles)