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.


 

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)