Friday, September 26, 2014
Once upon a time
Lav Diaz's last feature Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan (Norte, the End of History, 2013) was uncharacteristic of him--the film was in color, involved several writers (Rody Vera, with story contributions by Michiko Yamamoto and Raymond Lee), and featured relatively brisk pacing. Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon (From What is Before, 2014) looks like a return to his habitual style with its black-and-white cinematography, its solo-written script, its more contemplative stride...but I submit it's actually a break from what he's done before.
It begins with the legend Pilipinas, 1970, the film set further back into the past than Diaz has ever ventured before. A boy hauling a huge bunch of bananas stumbles towards the screen, and we hear the words "This story came from a memory...." Diaz has used voiceovers before albeit sparingly, but not in the manner of a third-person narrator, a storyteller. The feel then--this early in the film, set I'm guessing far back in the narrator's own memories--the feel is that of a fable, a tale shrouded in mist and tinted with trauma, told with a sense of dread.
The arrival of Bai Rahmah (Bambi Beltran) reinforces that temporal distance. She drifts into town, a small Maguindanao barrio (actually Diaz went north to the Cagayan Valley, to find a community that looks the way it did back in the '70s), and gives the townsfolk a little dance--possibly the first time aboriginal Filipino culture has been depicted in a Diaz film. The brass rhythms (composed by Diaz from an old memory, with Ms. Beltran improvising to the music) feel loose, limpid, somehow hypnotic, the moment somehow crucial. You sense that this is Diaz's idea of the perfect screening: his films (so theatrical, so grounded in real time, so antediluvian in rhythm and pacing) not so much projected as performed before an audience patient enough and sensitive enough to appreciate the anachronistic sensibility.
The end effect is to cast Diaz's reach even further back, past the '70s, granting us a glimpse of not just pre-modern, pre-colonial or even pre-Islamic society but of Eden--not so much the paradisical garden of biblical legend as a state of (relative) innocence, where people are still connected to traditions (the dance, its audience), and to each other, however troubled or antagonistic the relationship.
I'd call the villagefolk Fellinesque if they weren't so contemplative: Sito (Perry Dizon) the livestock caretaker; his adopted son Hakob (Ryenan Abcede); Itang (Hazel Orencio), who cares for her severely autistic sister Joselina (Karenina Haniel); Tony (Roeder Camanag) the winemaker; Heding (Miles Kanapi), a door-to-door vendor. Sito hides Hakob's rather horrific origins by telling him his parents are lepers; Hakob helps care for Joselina, all the while yearning to travel to his parents' (supposed) island-based leper colony; Itang wants Joselina to take up faith healing again, to earn money for their upkeep; Tony screws Joselina behind Itang's back; Heding, who feels snubbed by the sisters, spreads rumors that Joselina is really the daughter of a kapre, a tree ogre.
Diaz's films have gained such a reputation for gravitas it may come as a surprise to viewers how funny he can be; all the more startling because the humor is played out as solemnly as the more serious bits--Heding, for one is an inspired comic creation, a nonstop motormouth whose notions of home privacy are nominal at most, and whose fingers can't stay out of anything (a trait that turns out to be central to understanding her character and motivation); when Itang leaves offerings at a seaside stone altar (a magnificent location by the way, a jutting twisted monumental tower of a rock constantly pounded by wave and wind) Tony surreptitiously walks away with a bunch of bananas (Hakob just as surreptitiously snatches the other bunch). Not all the humor is light-hearted: Tony fondles Joselina, who's obsessing over a little clay teapot, and in a kind of slow-motion snaky struggle somehow has to pull her panties off and still keep her attention directed on said pot. The results are hilarious and horrifying both, a slapstick rape routine.
The characters are of course symbols: Sito is the patient father figure that haunts the margins of Diaz's films; Hakob is the eternal wanderer, who drifts (or would drift, given the chance) from family to family, town to town; Heding typifies the ambitious hustler, ever on the lookout for a quick sale, or a juicy bit of gossip. Sexually abusive Tony is Diaz's scathing depiction of Filipino machismo--instead of trying to date women (Itang for one) he takes advantage of the mentally ill; instead of expressing regret over his deeds when confronted he brazenly volunteers details. If he has any redeeming quality, it's his total self-honesty: he won't hesitate to admitting guilt (though he doesn't consider anything he does worthy of feeling guilt), and will spill what he knows of your scandalous activities in the process.
Joselina represents the unending victim, Itang heroic, self-sacrificing love. This is no saintly portrait Diaz paints here; the two are the opposite of noble, a spiraling cycle of need and suffering that can end only one way. I'd call their relationship Diaz's response to Michael Haneke's Amour only Diaz is if anything even more relentless, his two sisters eat away at each other in an environment of increasing chaos, supporting and savaging and victimizing each other in a roughly circular Brownian (slow) motion. They're Diaz's way of saying: "Yes this is a Filipino version of Eden, with vices and virtues like any other rural community. And then--"
"And then" happens quietly enough: Lt. Perdido (Ian Lomongo) and his men pay a visit, call a villagewide meeting, make the announcement that their troops are setting up camp nearby. The villagers are sullen, suspicious; they ask probing questions which the lieutenant deftly turns aside. No need to worry, he assures them; the soldiers are there to root out communist rebels, not them. It's easily the funniest (and most chilling) scene in the film, with the villagers' rural cunning struggling to parse the lieutenant's smooth bureaucracyspeak.
The lieutenant's name is "Perdido," though, which should have clued the townfolk in--the camp heralds the coming of Martial Law, when President Ferdinand Marcos on the pretext of fighting Communism establishes a fascist dictatorship that will last some fourteen years. Diaz has dealt with the subject before, tracing the regime's decade-long progress (Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (Evolution of a Filipino Family, 2004), its psychological consequences (Melancholia, 2008; Encantos, 2007), its repercussions on the near future of 2011 (?!) (Hesus Rebolusyunaryo, 2002).
Call it the key event of recent Filipino history and, consequently, of Diaz's cinema; but where his earlier films explore effects and echoes, this one explores sources, root causes--not so much historical and social as psychological, emotional, spiritual. The villagers are too wrapped up in their own problems and angst to really question what's happening about them; the military calms their suspicions (somewhat) with courteously worded assurances and continue operations with professional efficiency. Taking a page out of Mario O'Hara's Demons, Diaz surrounds the village with the supernatural: Sito hunting pigeons with Hakob apologizes to one forest spirit after another; a man found dead on the ground is said to have been bitten by an aswang; Heding suspects Joselina of being a kapre's daughter and folks accept the accusation without question. One sign of foreboding follows another so that when the creatures finally step out of the shadows, when the monsters allow themselves to be finally openly seen they're clad in khaki, an automatic rifle strapped to one shoulder. And no one is at all surprised.
After the military follow the Civilian Home Defense Forces (CHDF), basically armed vigilantes with shabbier uniforms and less training tasked with doing the army's dirtier work, and the horror really hits the fan--but any Filipino knows the rest of the story. It took Diaz, with a two million peso (approximately $45,000) grant from the Film Development Council of the Philippines, to tell the beginning of that story (one beginning of that story) in his own inimitable style; it took Diaz, taking a page from our history, to tell of Eden's precipitous fall from grace--done one September 21, 1972.
First published in Businessworld, 9.18.14