Smaller and Smaller Circles (Raya Martin, 2017)

Smaller and Smaller circles poster“Time and forgetfulness are the allies of abusers” – a Catholic priest reminds his students as part of a history lesson regarding the supposedly bloodless revolution that led to the end of the Marcos regime. Festival favourite Raya Martin dials things back a little in adapting the award winning novel by F.H. Batacan, Smaller and Smaller Circles. Batacan’s novel is often described as the first real Philippine crime novel – something echoed in the ridiculous views of a lazy and self serving police officer who believes there are no serial killers in the Philippines, yet the Smaller and Smaller Circles of the title lay the blame for the heinous acts its centre not at the feet of an evil madman but at those of the society which so progressively damaged his soul as to render it irreparable.

Our hero is himself a priest. Father Gus Saenz (Nonie Buencamino) is a man of faith and compassion who, despite all the failings he can see in it, still believes the Church is the best way to help those in need. He is sickened and appalled by the institution’s intransigence when it comes to bad priests and is preoccupied by one in particular – Father Ramirez, whose inappropriate conduct with children he has doggedly reported for more than a decade only for him to continually escape punishment. In addition to the priesthood, Father Gus is also a teacher of philosophy and a forensic scientist who works as an occasional consultant to the local police. It is in this capacity that he comes to discover a series of murders involving young boys whose bodies were discarded on a local rubbish dump deprived of their hearts, genitals, and faces. With the assistance of his junior priest, Father Jerome (Sid Lucero), and a reporter (Carla Humphries) who was once his student, Gus attempts to solve the mystery behind this horrific series of murders before the killer strikes again.

Martin breaks with genre norms by giving us an immediate insight into the killer’s psychology as we witness the prelude to the killings while listening to his own explanations of why they must occur. The picture he paints of his childhood quickly frames his crimes as a murder of the self as the killer indulges in a compulsion to kill the weak, targeting teenage boys and stealing from them not only the breath of life but the spirit of it too. The first of our circles is the Church – the bad priests whose abuses are sanctioned by their organisation and mitigated by the “good” they leave behind. Father Ramirez was shuffled on and now works for a children’s charity but Father Gus’ attempts to warn the charity’s director fall on deaf ears and then cost him his funding. Only when Father Ramirez’ financial improprieties are discovered is his position finally questioned.

The second ring is poverty. All of these boys were poor and many of them were not identified right away because aside from their parents (if they had them) nobody was going to miss them. The film opens with a scene of children running over a rubbish dump and as the father of the first victim explains, his son was one of many who supported their struggling families by combing over the left overs of the better off looking for anything which might still be useful. Our third ring is bureaucracy – when Fathers Gus and Jerome meet the local councillor, they are surprised to find that she is efficient and committed, keen to do whatever it takes to look after her constituents even if it means going up against the Church or the wider government. However, she knew nothing of the murders and though she is quick to grant Father Gus all the access he needs, it is partly her own efforts to provide essential services to the poor which have enabled the crimes as those who claim to want to help others are really only helping themselves and wilfully turning those same mechanisms back on the people who need them most.

As a man of faith Father Gus does his best, refusing to give up on the killer, trying to ease his burden whilst in grave physical danger. Set in the Philippines of the late 90s, Smaller and Smaller Circles is filled with those still trying to come to terms with the traumatic past but finding its unpleasantness echoing in unexpected places. As such it finds unexpected resonance in the world of 2017 in which life is once again cheap and compassion thin on the ground.


Smaller and Smaller Circles is screening as part of the seventh season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema on 19th September at 7pm, AMC River East 21, plus introduction and Q&A with director Raya Martin.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Independencia (Raya Martin, 2009)

Independencia posterThough only 24 at the time of Independencia’s release, Raya Martin had already amassed a reputation as an ambitious iconoclast, a director of “slow cinema” who made a fast start on a wide-ranging series of films dealing with the complicated business of his nation’s history and identity. Like many Philippine arthouse directors, Martin’s work is necessarily bound up not just with history itself but with its mediation or more specifically how cinema reflects and refracts on these increasing complications.

Moving on from 2005’s A Short Film About the Indio Nacional, Independencia opens with a raucous street scene as a collection of local townspeople attempt to celebrate the longed for liberation from Spanish rule. The party is interrupted by gunshots. A middle-aged man looks off into the middle distance and exclaims that “they” are coming. The Philippines will not be free after all, it has merely swapped one master for another as the Spanish have sold it to the Americans, rendering their declaration of independence nothing if not premature.

A tough middle-aged woman (Tetchie Agbayani)  is not prepared to wait around to be recolonised and orders her less forthright son (Sid Lucero) to accompany her into the jungle where they will live their lives away from the chaos of war with no masters but themselves. Mother and son discover a small hut apparently abandoned by Spanish colonists of ages past and adopt it as their own, growing their own crops (such as they can) and learning to live off the land as their ancestors had, a skill taken from them by the false promise of urban civility. Some time later the son discovers an injured woman (Alessandra de Rossi ) in the jungle, who seems to have been raped and beaten by American troops.

Gradually the mother, son, and putative daughter-in-law shed their colonial corruptions by exchanging their Spanish clothes for those of forest dwellers, the son’s hair now long, and the cross around his neck the only reminder of his former life while he tells his son (or, more precisely the son of the woman he found in the jungle he is raising as his own) altogether older tales of magic amulets and snake fighting ancestors, conjuring a new mythology from the ashes of the old.

Martin’s mythology is resolutely cinematic. Shooting in black and white academy ratio, he adopts the style and aesthetics of a early talking picture, aping the visual language associated with the new occupying forces (though perhaps retrospectively). After leaving the town, the mother and her son find themselves in is not a real jungle but an obvious stage set with a painted matte backdrop behind it. As the family (or families) make their lives in this artificial world the trees behind them begin to thin out, the threat of the outside world always encroaching on the “independence” they are seeking to build for themselves.

The film is split into two by the incongruous presence of a propaganda reel, shot on messy handheld and depicting an American soldier shooting dead a peasant boy who pretended to steal an egg from a marketplace as a joke. The soldier poses over the child’s body like a big game hunter while the vendor looks on appalled. The cheesy voice over reminds us that this should be “lesson to all those people who do questionable things justifying them as innocent jokes”. The troops, it assures us are “everywhere”, ensuring that the streets are safe in this “time of crisis”.

Meanwhile, the family can hear gunshots just as the revellers did in the beginning and they realise their days of independence are numbered. The boy, growing older, is curious about his world, having only the tales of his mother and father to go by, not understanding the danger that surrounds him. He is fascinated by a “golden figure” whose hair and body shine so brightly he can hardly see them, but the boy is also out of place here constantly lost in the jungle that ought to be his home. The son, now losing his sight, exclaims that strange things have entered the forest – wonderful and terrible things, but that the “one who is bathed in light” will protect them. 

Yet the figure which presents itself at the climactic moment is not one of light but of darkness, opaque and faceless. Left alone, the boy is faced with encroaching invaders on one side and a rapidly shrinking forest on the other. His choice is one of no choice, but he does, in a sense at least, choose his independence in the only way that is left to him. 


Available on R0 DVD from Second Run.

Original trailer (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)