Monday, October 13, 2014

Lav Diaz: retrospective of his early work

Portrait of the anguished as Filipino

I first encountered Lav Diaz's rather unique sensibility in Joey Gosengfiao and Lily Monteverde's Good Harvest Film Festival, in 1998. The film was Serafin Geronimo: Kriminal ng Baryo Concepcion, starring Raymond Bagatsing, a Filipino-Indian actor (his surname is derived from "Baghat-Singh") as Geronimo, the Raskolnikov figure haunted by guilt for his part in a kidnapping gone horribly wrong. It was not a perfect film, I thought--the pacing was sluggish, half the scenes were dramatically stillborn, and there was no production value to speak of (it was one of Good Harvest's "pito-pito" (seven-seven) films, reportedly made for around 50 to 65 thousand US dollars, shot in seven days (actually around ten), and post-produced for another seven (actually ten to fourteen))--but two things stood out: it had an unusually thoughtful tone and a riveting lead actor. Bagatsing was intense yet understated, introverted yet eloquent in suggesting immense reaches of guilt and despair--a major performance, I thought, possibly the best from a Filipino actor in years past (and years since).

Thoughts of Raskolnikov are hardly coincidental: Dostoevsky is the one writer you think of when you watch Diaz's films. His sense of grand themes, of moments of humanity and depravity informed by a touch of mysticism, are what Diaz is all about. Diaz even gives Geronimo (full name an odd combination of angel and warrior) an infected tooth, a horrific little touch not unlike Smerdyakov's epileptic fits, an indicator of the character's inner state (in Smerdyakov a disruptive static hiding the presence of malignant evil; in Geronimo a festering pain reminding him of unresolved guilt). Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Geronimo's character wasn't his guilt so much as his loneliness, his sense of isolation from Filipino society in general--an isolation felt by many a Diaz protagonist, possibly by Diaz himself. The production, hampered by a budget that could barely evoke its reportedly ambitious, two-hundred-pages-plus script (which leading Filipino critic Nestor Torre declared the previous year "would never be made in twenty years"), nevertheless managed to be the most impressive debut by a Filipino filmmaker since Raymond Red's Ang Magpakailanman (The Eternity) in 1982.

Diaz's next film Hubad sa Ilalim ng Buwan (Naked Under the Moon, 1999) is a strange hybrid, the only one of Diaz's features not completely written by him (note: not true now, of course). Diaz started with a script by Suzette Doctolero and with the help of Bong Ramos rewrote the story, turning what should have been a standard melodrama (about a failed married priest played by Joel Torre) into yet another existential quest (the priest's daughter (Klaudia Koronel), who sleepwalks in the nude, is haunted by memories of  rape). The production's again flawed: Klaudia Koronel as the sleepwalking daughter does mostly that throughout most of the film (the actress, a capable comedienne with a body like a walking erotic joke, is wan and lifeless under Diaz's direction). 

More interesting is the story of the girl's father, a former priest and cuckolded husband who at one point vanishes from sight. The man who leaves home and family on some vague quest is a recurring motif in Diaz's films (Geronimo leaves his wife to join the kidnap gang), and possibly represents a number of things: dissatisfaction with the status quo; hunger for change and the unknown; mute unspecified anger against one's father; a need to achieve perfection…a need even Diaz acknowledges (in his films and in real life) can never be satisfied. 

Burger Boys, about a gang of youths planning a bank robbery--no, actually it's about a gang of youths writing a screenplay about a gang of youths planning a bank robbery (the original title was Laruang Krimen (Criminal Games))--is reportedly the first film Diaz made with Monteverde's Good Harvest/Regal Films, but the third to have a commercial run (even its release history is paradoxical). It's very possibly Diaz's strangest, and the one that most obviously shows the dearth of an adequate production budget. A subplot concerning a posse pursuing the youth gang--cartoonish grotesques wearing cheap cowboy hats--is embarrassing to watch; on the other hand, casual touches like a father's unfinished statue (an angel with the wings left incomplete) suddenly come to life have the haunting offhanded lyricism of Bunuel. The film is too crudely made, both visually and structurally, to be considered a success; rather, it's a vivid, unforgettable failure. Strangely enough, because I had translated the film's dialogue for the Frankfurt Film Festival's Good Harvest retrospective and received an audiocassette to help in the translation, I realized while listening to the tape that the film plays much better as a radio drama--an extended prose poem, a fevered dream…

Diaz's next film, Batang West Side (West Side Avenue), about the killing of a young Filipino-American and the murder investigation that follows, was at five hours the longest Filipino or Southeast Asian film ever made back in 2001 (there's been longer since, but more on that later). It's an epic-length picture that, strangely, refuses to act like an epic--no large sets, no big battle sequences, no grand displays of emotion or sweeping pageant of historical events. Instead there's the quiet (a Diaz hallmark) accumulation of story and characters that, when completed, presents a sweepingly detailed mural of a Filipino-American community: from youngest to oldest, richest to poorest, most sensible to least.

If a typical Diaz film features a loner-hero who wanders parts unknown on a spiritual quest, Diaz here presents two: murder victim Hanzel Harana (Yul Servo) and investigating officer Detective Juan Mijarez (Joel Torre). Like Kriminal ng Baryo Concepcion the basic premise seems inspired by Crime and Punishment, only Diaz has blurred the lines even further: Hanzel might have been complicit in his own shooting or might have even committed suicide, while Detective Mijarez may or may not be a righteous guardian of justice.

Hanzel, the film's initial focus, is a casualty of the great wave of Filipino migration that has been going on for decades--his mother (Gloria Diaz in the performance of her career) left Hanzel as a child to work in the United States as a nurse; she fell in love with one of her patients (a rich old man), married him, and is caring for his stroke-paralyzed body when she finally brings Hanzel (now a young man) to America to stay with her. Hanzel loves his mother but cannot stand her occasionally abusive, constantly manipulative lover Bartolo (the magnificently monstrous Art Acuna, a--believe it or not--really nice guy in person); he moves in with his grandfather Abdon (Ruben Pizon), then strikes out on his own, renting an apartment with money earned from unknown sources...

It's perhaps the finest, fullest portrait of a Filipino-American youth ever realized on the big screen. Hanzel and his friends are not your stereotypical second-generation Asian immigrants--not sexually chaste clean-cut robots who rack up high grades in school and pay proper respect to their parents. These kids smoke, brawl, make out, do and push drugs (shabu (crystal meth) use among the young being one of the community's darkest secrets). At the same time Diaz also doesn't give us the usual rebels without cause--Dolores, Hanzel's girlfriend (Priscilla Almeda, previously known for undressing in soft-core films and a revelation here) is a level-headed girl who would rather study than shoot up; Hanzel himself--for a while, at least--attends some classes and learns to use a computer; some of Hanzel's junkie friends hold down jobs, have relationships, and are otherwise funny, likeable people.

Diaz showed unusual sensitivity in portraying adolescents in Burger Boys; one character--the young man haunted by his dead father and his father's unfinished sculpture--leaped from the screen he was so vivid, then almost immediately sank back again into the film's surface chaos…but you never forgot the pain and suppressed anger on that young face. Servo's Hanzel is that youth reborn, with the time and space to develop into a far more poignant figure--an iredeemably lost soul, turning from mother to grandfather to underworld father figure in the hope of finding the love he's never gotten from any of them (think of his namesake, abandoned by parents in the Grimm fairy tale). Grandfather Abdon comes closest to reaching Hanzel by treating him as an equal, comforting him with his patience, tempting Hanzel with shelf after shelf of literature and knowledge (love it that Grandfather Abdon lures him with books)--but we already know this promising start is doomed to fail; the film begins, after all, with the discovery of Hanzel's frozen body on the sidewalks of West Side Avenue.

As Hanzel's story unfolds, so does Mijarez's. He's the criminal of Barrio Concepcion as police investigator; the father with an unfinished sculpture; the defrocked priest returned from his wanderings. He's Hanzel only decades older, with warier, wearier eyes (at one point the two actually bump into each other on West Side Avenue, and the resemblance--and difference--is remarkable). The impression of a secret hidden deep within Mijarez's psyche develops over the course of the five hours, from hints and clues dropped by Diaz throughout the narrative (how Mijarez likes to call his wife on his cellphone but not speak to her; how he tells his therapist unsettling little dreams where nothing happens but the very air is full of unresolved tension; how he sometimes explodes in violent fits of anger; how--most disturbing of all--he sometimes just sits there, staring into space, looking at unseen images either wondrous or horrific). If Servo's performance as Hanzel is the product of raw talent, Torre's as Mijarez is the product of experience, of years of observation and imagination fashioning a character that--because of conflicting forces of anger, guilt, and love--finds himself in a state of hopeless equilibrium, suspended between heaven and hell.

But Batang West Side is more than just the story of these two plus a constellation of supporting characters. It's Diaz posing questions about us Filipinos (Is immigration the great solution we all make it out to be? Is the family still the central unit around which Philippine society is--or should be--organized? Is there any hope left for our youth, hope of any kind left for anyone?). It's his condemnation of and tribute to the Filipino youth, to their many vices and singular virtues. It's a response to a great need and correction of a longtime imbalance--it's the weight and value of the Filipino soul, given back to us through the loss of a single life. Yes, Diaz seems to be telling us, the Filipino is worth this much at the very least: a five-hour exploration of his life and circumstance and untimely death. Diaz's masterpiece, I think, and a great film.

After the long struggle to make Batang West Side (at one point the producer effectively abandoned the project, and Diaz had to scrape together the money to finish it; the film ultimately cost him friends, even his marriage), Diaz went back to Lily Monteverde's Regal Studios to make a commercial film: an action-packed thriller (military hunt for a rebel leader) with name stars (Mark Anthony Fernandez, MTV Asia VJ Donita Rose), and a reasonable running time (112 minutes). 

Hesus Rebolusyonaryo (Jesus the Revolutionary) is a dystopian science-fiction film set nine years in the future. The Philippines is ruled by a dictator-general, and the Communist Party--one of several factions opposing the military regime--is in the act of purging itself. Like Orwell's 1984, a commentary on Britain at the time of its writing (1948), the film is really a commentary on the Philippines in the year 2002. Manila's streets have not changed; if anything, they look seedier, filthier. They are often deserted; you hear talk of curfews and spot military checkpoints at every other corner. Diaz in effect took his budget constraints--no money for sets, or crowd extras--and turned them into a political point: that Manila in the future will be more of the same, only worse.

Through these streets walks Hesus Mariano (the surname being a play on "Mary"--mother of Jesus, of course)--scholar, musician, poet, warrior. He's too quiet and introverted (hallmarks of the Diaz hero) to be an obvious choice for Savior of the Philippines, but Fernandez (son of Filipino action star Rudy Fernandez) plays him with an easy charisma that you imagine can be switched on and off like a blowtorch--when on, you can't help saying: yes, he can lead. Hesus is another of Diaz's journeyman loners, and wanders the desolate landscape like a time bomb with a troubled mind (not only does he wonder when he should explode, but why, and what's the point of it all anyway?). The film is possibly a working out of Diaz's notions and beliefs about Philippine politics (more of the same, only different) and history (which is cyclical, which tends to repeat itself--the events in the film based on actual purges that took place within the Communist Party of the Philippines in 1996). 

The ending can easily be seen as a disappointment; I think it's the film's most daring and ominous conceit, consistent not only with Hesus' character, but with Diaz's philosophy and sensibility overall.

After making a five-hour film, then following it up with a 'commercial' effort that was actually one of the more unconventional science-fiction/action films ever made, what does one do for an encore? For Diaz it was to take footage that he had been working on for some eleven years, shoot additional scenes, and turn it all into a picture more than twice as long as his last two combined. In effect the first film he ever shot has become--has evolved into, if you like--his latest (yet another interesting aspect of Diaz's career are the complex and even melodramatic histories of his various productions), and by far (at ten or more hours) longest.

Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (Evolution of a Filipino Family, 2004) covers around fifteen or so years of Philippine history, from before the advent of Martial Law in 1972 to some time after the fall of the Marcos regime in 1986. The title refers to one family but the film actually follows two: the first lives amongst the rice paddies of Gerona, Tarlac and is headed by grandmother Puring (Angie Ferro); the second lives in the mountain forests of Itogon, Benguet Province, headed by Fernando (Ronnie Lazaro).

Linking the two families is the classic Diaz protagonist: loner-wanderer Reynaldo (Elryan de Vera), an abandoned child picked up by Puring's daughter Hilda (Marife Necesito) in the streets of Manila, then brought back to Tarlac after an unspecified incident caused Hilda to lose her mind. Hilda's insanity provokes Puring into complaining bitterly that the woman has brought bad luck to their family, plus a reputation for mental instability; Hilda's brother Kadyo (Pen Medina) defends Hilda and Reynaldo and tells Reynaldo that come what may he regards him as his own blood. After Hilda's death, Reynaldo wanders off to become Fernando's adopted, helping him in his various enterprises--chopping up tree branches for firewood; panning rocky streams for gold; exploring abandoned tunnels for untapped veins of the same rare metal. Puring in a fit of conscience asks Kadyo (who has just served a prison term for theft) to look for Reynaldo, hopefully persuade him to come back to the family; in the meantime, Fernando has to confront a larger mining gang over exploration rights to the tunnels…

The film is less complex and yet more experimental than Batang West Side: while the running time is much longer, we know less about the characters because they talk and interact less (considering the stretches of silence between lines of dialogue, Ebolusyon might be considered a silent film). Perhaps the most unbelievable aspect of the whole production was that Diaz brought the picture in on a budget of two million pesos--just under the budget of Kriminal ng Baryo Concepcion, or $40,000 for a ten-hour film, so it may be forgivable, even expected, that the production suffer from serious flaws. 

Perhaps not the underlighting--parts of the film are in almost complete darkness--because these portions add a touch of tension to the film, a touch of mystery (you know something's happening and you're not sure what, but you badly want to find out). Diaz probably wanted to shoot everything in 16 mm--the footage he did shoot in this medium has a harsh beauty--but there just wasn't enough money for that, so he settled for video. Which should have been fine, but unfortunately Diaz couldn't make the rationale for doing scenes in either 16 mm or video consistent--what should have been 16 mm flashbacks set in the '70s are sometimes in video (presumably because Diaz found he needed to shoot new scenes set in the '70s, and couldn't scrape up the raw footage to do it). It's interesting to compare the 16 mm footage to the video: where the earlier footage uses dramatic angles and shadows, the video's lighting and framing is more serene, more confident; even in terms of visual style, Diaz's film shows a process of evolution.

More troubling is Diaz's use of historical footage: a coup d'etat from the Aquino administration, for example, precedes the 1986 EDSA revolution that brought Aquino to power. Diaz is presumably showing us someone's memories of historical events, and of course memories aren't necessarily recalled chronologically, but it isn't clear whose memories these are--most of the characters seem barely aware of what's going on outside their immediate barrio--and why such-and-such memory is being evoked at such-and-such point in time. Diaz might also be trying to create parallels between historical events and peoples' lives (the way Visconti did with The Leopard, or Bertolucci with 1900), but you see precious little connection between events in Manila and events in either Tarlac or the Benguet Province. When, for example, Ferdinand Marcos declares martial law on television, it isn't clear why these folks' lives are going to turn out for the worse--you see guerillas, and you see the military rounding up barrio folk, but these could have been going on (and did, actually) before Marcos' announcement and after his fall. In fact, the worst events to occur to the two families aren't caused by historical forces so much as by immediate ones, by the people around them--a group of drunken neighbors, a gang of miners--

What's needed is a way to make these connections, to maybe have some character explain why this or that event has an effect on their lives, so many miles away. Rey Ventura's rebel leader Ka Harim would have been the perfect choice--early on he's seen explaining a few things to Kadyo, and presumably he would have gone on explaining things to Puring, or Reynaldo, or one of Puring's granddaughters--but Ventura tragically died in 2004. Diaz may also have felt that too much spoken exposition would ruin the film's air of mystery (one might call this 'The Kubrick Defense'--the director's line of reasoning for not explaining 2001: A Space Odyssey)--but I think a balance could have been struck between being too obscure and being too explicit; Batang West Side, after all, had room for several long speeches, all of which were quite informative, some of which were downright zany, even hilarious.

I feel ambivalent about the use of Lino Brocka (played with remarkable vigor by film critic/iconoclast Gino Dormiendo) as a crucial plot point. Not in my wildest dreams could I imagine Marcos finding Brocka threatening enough to actually plot anything against him; on the other hand, that Marcos might find Brocka at all worrisome would so tickle the vanity of any film enthusiast--cinema can change the world, yes!--that it's difficult to find fault with Diaz's conceit. Plus there is the possibility that the plotters are in fact deranged (a charge that could be leveled against all film enthusiasts), so that this subplot is in fact an elaborate prank on Diaz's part, a reminder to all of us not to take ourselves too seriously.

Overall, I prefer Batang West Side--Diaz's earlier film, I felt, was better at characterization, was more visually consistent, was overall more (to use Diaz's favorite phrase) 'organic.' I'd further argue that Diaz's protagonist and method of storytelling is more at home in Batang West Side's milieu than in Ebolusyon's--the alienated wanderer-hero, who looks askance or at least skeptically at family relationships and rootedness, would I think have the temperament to emigrate rather than cultivate. Diaz has spoken of Ebolusyon as being some kind of prequel to Batang West Side, and I see hints of this design; I just don't think the design is altogether clear. Ebolusyon is an impressive accomplishment, a work of art created despite near-impossible odds (including, at one point, the loss of an entire cut of the film due to a computer disk drive crash)--but it still feels like a work of progress that could do with more tinkering, more refining, perhaps even additional footage...

That said, I'd call Ebolusyon even in its present state remarkable cinema, and indispensable viewing. If its themes of history pressing against the lives of ordinary people could use further clarification, Diaz's inclusion of certain footage nevertheless creates considerable impact: the chilling calmness with which Marcos reads Proclamation 1081; the awe-inspiring shot of EDSA as seen from a helicopter, lenses sweeping across miles of people clogging the wide highway (in defiance of the soldiers and tanks surrounding them); the chaos of farmers running from Mendiola Bridge as soldiers strafe their ranks.

More than the documentary footage, though, Ebolusyon is perhaps the greatest, most comprehensive attempt ever made to capture the quality and flavor of Filipino provincial life. From rice paddy to highland forests, from harvest to planting, from merciless noon heat to the absolute dark of the nighttime countryside, Diaz shoots it all, and more, shoots enough of it that we get to savor the kind of measureless existence the people experience within the various landscapes. Women walk down a path, sit to rest, rise up to continue their trek; a pair of boys wrestle, pause from exhaustion, then wrestle some more--this is life in the provinces, and if we city folk think we'd go crazy trying to live like this (much less watch it on the big screen) we had better brace ourselves: civilization, when you look at the big picture, is a mere blip on the big screen of existence. From living this way to living in a modern apartment to going back to living this way is possibly the space of a few hundred years--maybe less.

It's not all silence and angst--much of the melodrama you find in Filipino films is shunted by Diaz to the radio dramas, which the people follow religiously (I can't help thinking of Burger Boys on audiocassette). Here you find tragedy and horror, sexuality and humor galore; the fact that the stories are make-believe--and Diaz emphasizes this by showing us the recording sessions, where actors with headphones and hanging microphones shriek and weep and groan, all in deadpan--seems to liberate Diaz into writing the most outrageous situations (at one point it's suggested that a hysterical woman was raped by a radio). It's his way of reminding us of the huge disparity in attitude between the actors--who are at times visibly embarrassed to be mouthing such tripe--and the listeners, who take all this as if it were gospel truth. 

Into this world--mostly quiet, sometimes absurd, occasionally violent--Diaz injects moments of unbearable poignancy: Puring by the fire, singing a heartbreakingly lovely song (Felipe de Leon's "Sapagkat Mahal Kita" (Because I love you)); crazed Hilda discovering the crying child in a heap of garbage (she is Diaz's version of Sisa, the classic character from Jose Rizal's great social novel Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not)); Kadyo trying to talk with Reynaldo about their relationship; Fernando and sons scrabbling for gold amongst the dried-up river's rubble; Fernando's wife getting up to cook dinner, discovering she is going blind; Kadyo approaching Puring, then being banished to lifelong exile.

You have Kadyo in prison, singing Rey Valera's "Kung Kailangan Mo Ako" (If you need me) in a plaintive, off-key voice to a cell full of sleeping convicts (singing to himself, in effect). You have Fernando, desperate to find his son, angrily confronting rival miners. You have Kadyo crawling on the sidewalk, his arm clutching the stab wound in his side, his moment of agony stretched almost to eternity. You have Puring, all the photographs she has ever owned surrounding her, looking sadly upon one. Finally you have Diaz's painfully poignant epilogue, titled: "The Story of Two Mothers…"

Not a perfect work, and I think not a fully developed one, but if only for this series of moments--fleeting, yet unforgettable--I feel it was a more than worthwhile experience, watching this film.

(First published in "Ekran Review for Film and Television," vol. 30, letnik XLII, 5-6 2005. With thanks to Jurij Meden for permission to publish)

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