Friday, March 25, 2016

Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis (A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery, Lav Diaz)

Night of the living dead

Lav Diaz's Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan is arguably Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, into which is woven select threads of recent Filipino history (i.e. the Marcos dictatorship); his latest, Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis (A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery), is for all intents and purposes a conflation of Jose Rizal's El Filibusterismo with the 1896 Filipino Revolution. 

And of course since Dostoevsky is a far more famous writer (with a far tonier literary cachet) than Rizal ever was outside of the Philippines, and Marcos a more recent (and hence easier to recall) historical phenomenon than Spain's colonial influence, critics I suppose have decided to instigate a backlash on the filmmaker, and wrote their articles accordingly. 

Some of the more common complaints: it's long and self-indulgent; its period detail is full of inaccuracies; it lacks the humor of earlier Diaz; it's dialogue-heavy especially during the first three hours, with much of the dialogue devoted to explaining obscure bits of Philippine history, presumably for the foreign festival viewer. 

The nature of the first charge is puzzling; far as I can see nearly all of Lav's later films are self-indulgently long. He's managed to make a film justify its length maybe twice: with the five-hour Batang West Side, and with the almost compact four-hour Norte; otherwise his ambition has consistently outpaced his abilities and I submit that's part of his appeal--that he's constantly overreaching, trying for something few have done before (when I hear this or that film described as being "practically perfect" a voice in my head adds: "because it didn't push the envelope hard enough"). Lav's equally long Melancholia is mentioned in at least two articles as being better (hence absolving the reviewer of the charge of being anti-length); why that film and not this? Why not Heremias, which clicks in at nine hours, or Ebolusyon, at eleven? Would they have been happier if this was an exact copy of Melancholia, with a dash of contemporary politics to make the whole go down easier?

The second accusation is harder to refute: incandescent lights, an aluminum tripod, printed shirts impossible for that time period (though printed textiles have been around since the 12th century). It's also not a little nitpicky (was Godard held accountable for the freshly rented look of Emily Bronte's and Saint-Just's costumes in Weekend?)

Lack of humor is perhaps the most mystifying charge of all. Quiroga's women (the gloriously chichi Melo Esguerra, Bianca Balbuena, Moira Lee) walking down a street with kaftans billowing a mile behind them; Simoun (Piolo Pascual) and the Kapitan Heneral (Bart Guingona) lobbing insults at each other over an opium pipe; a tikbalang (a mythical horselike creature, played with high glee by Bernardo Bernardo) leading a manhunt uselessly round a tree. From where I sat there's plenty funny in this film; was Lav meant to tailor the humor somehow--simplify it, make it more palatable--to foreign critics?

As for dialogue--a Lav Diaz character is rarely if ever silent (Florentina Hubaldo and Heremias being the rare exceptions); if you talk to the filmmaker himself he's an erudite, eloquent raconteur. Admittedly any attempt to write dialogue with a period flavor--particularly the florid style of expression of the colonial period Filipino--is going to end up clumsy at best (Eddie Romero managed it somehow; can't think of anyone else). Admittedly there's an overwhelming amount of context to deliver to the audience, even to the Filipino viewer familiar with both revolt and Rizal's novel; Lav delivers the material as quickly and as directly, if not always successfully, as he can, on the budget allowed (roughly P12 million or US$258,000--large for a Diaz production, but barely enough to cover the catering cost of a Hollywood extravaganza). Does the pace pick up only after the third hour? I submit it picks up after the second, with the first appearance of the tikbalangs, and doesn't really slow down thereafter--that Lav does know what he's doing (more or less) and we're just impatient with this umpteenth attempt at attention span stretching (an alternative, as Lav repeatedly puts it, to the standard-issue consumer-friendly 120-minute movie).

It's beautifully shot, in old-fashioned 4:3 ratio (the as film scholar David Bordwell puts it "body-friendly, human-sized" ratio), with noirish / German Expressionist / Filipino komiks lighting, easily the best-looking film the filmmaker has done to date. Diaz (with Larry Manda as cinematographer) streams in light to pool in dark corners; he aims spotlights straight at the camera, illuminating half a face while plunging the other in shadow. Shooting in Las Casas Filipinas (a resort of old houses transferred brick by brick from their original locations) in Bagac, Bataan, he manages to evoke everything from Parisian insouciance (the low sweeping bridges--with a well-endowed stone horse standing on hind legs!) to Venetian decay (the shallow canals), only set in 19th century Colonial Manila, the eerily empty cobblestone streets recalling the deserted dystopian-future Manila Lav once proposed in Hesus Rebolusyonaryo (2002).

Lav describes the film as following four narrative strands; I prefer to see the film as three layers, one encapsulating the other. The first and inmost is Gregoria de Jesus' (Hazel Orencio) search for her revolutionary husband Andres Bonifacio's body; the second has El Filibusterismo characters Isagani (John Lloyd Cruz) and Simoun's (Paolo Pascual) trekking into the Filipino forest; the last has three tikbalangs (Bernardo Bernardo, Cherie Gil, Angel Aquino) involved in a plot to hide (and later recover) the legendary Bernardo Carpio (unseen in the film). 

Strangely the fictional are aware of the historical and not the other way around--Gregoria focuses on her search with a laser intensity bordering on the insane, and makes no mention of the El Fili folk; Isagani and Simoun on the other hand are aware of Bonifacio's revolt and keep tabs with and occasionally comment on its progress; the tikbalangs of course stand above it all, chortling and whinnying at the foolishness of these mortals. You imagine it would be more natural for the real-life people to have read Rizal's books--possibly Diaz didn't want to stray too far off the historical record; or possibly he conceived of the fictional characters as transitional figures, with a foot in the real world, another in the metaphysical. 

The characters are incurable storytellers; they insist on reciting place, names, dates, events (Hule (Susan Africaat one point repeats the date October 31, 1896 twice, this being the day her people in Nasugbu, Batangas were massacred; at another point a farmer tells of an amulet he bought, meant to protect him from bullets--when his friends rise to face the Spaniards, he carefully notes that they're "shot to death like chickens"). Diaz's characters are also Dostoevskeian in that they constantly expound and discuss and try to make sense of the tumultuous events swirling about them (it helps to have either alcohol or opium at hand--Diaz's (if not necessarily Dostoevsky's) people are funnier and more loquacious when high).  

At one point Simoun and Isagani fall into debate. Poet Isagani belittles art's usefulness; Mephistophelean Simoun--the last person you'd imagine capable of appreciating culture--chides him for being hasty. Artist versus anarchist, virtuous versus villain, taking up the opposite position; critics often cite this passage as being an especially hoary discussion on the relevance of art. 

The occasions when their storylines cross (in the beginning, when Rizal's execution sparks the revolution and drives Isagani's best friend Basilio (Sid Lucero) to seek out and assassinate Simoun; in the middle when a farmer tells Isagani "I saw Bonifacio killed;" and near the end when all the characters gather for a dreamlike/nightmare feast thrown by the Colorum sect (a sect that believes Rizal will rise from the dead, and Bernardo Carpio will return to crush the Spaniards))--at these junctures Diaz shows us how history intermingles with mythology, bleeds into each other (Rizal--writer, polymath, provocateur--becomes the promised Christ; Simoun, possible inspiration for Bonifacio's revolution, is Rizal's darker side, and perhaps Lav's as well), and how all this arise from the need to tell stories (even the tikbalangs have their own truths and fictions to tell).

Strictly speculating here, but Lav may have been inspired by Gerardo de Leon's masterfully Gothic adaptation of Rizal's novel to shoot the film in classic noir style. He may have taken his cue from Mario O'Hara's Ang Paglilitis ni Andres Bonifacio (The Trial of Andres Bonifacio) to post mythological creatures on the sidelines, prancing and commenting on the action (O'Hara's film may have also helped kick off the recent trend in features about Bonifacio and his archrival, Emilio Aguinaldo). From O'Hara's Pangarap ng Puso (Demons, 2000) Lav may have borrowed the idea that poetry is an expression of our deepest emotions, mythology a manifestation of our darkest impulses; from O'Hara's Sisa (1999) and Gerardo de Leon's earlier version he may have borrowed the idea that where historical record or fiction fall short imagination might carry the day--giving us, for example, the confrontation between Gregoria de Jesus and Cesaria Bellarmino (Alessandra de Rossi) that we have long craved, or the remission of sin Isagani might have granted Simoun, if Rizal had chosen to extend his novel's narrative. Leaving Las Casas Filipinas for the dark majesty of the Philippine forest, Lav has his characters lose themselves in the Gustave Dore thickets of their own subconscious, where they either flounder helplessly or somehow dredge up a resolution to their various narratives.

And they do (skip to the last paragraph if you wish to see the film!). Gregoria realizes who stands before her: the woman who precipitated her husband's defeat and probable death, and her own reported rape. What follows is almost archetypically Filipino--our baser passions (fear, anger, hate) prove all-consuming but so do our higher ones (love, compassion), and we are driven to act accordingly. Later when Simoun (who in the latter half of the film seems to assume the role of Caliban-sorcerer, crippled and forced into self-reflection) raises the topic of his many sins, Isagani is less forgiving; he admits his anger against Simoun can't be easily assuaged. Then Simoun tells a story, of having met a blind girl taught by Isagani to recite Rizal's last poem; moved by the memory the Caliban-sorcerer starts reciting the poem itself.

It's a lovely moment: Pascual performs with fervor in the original Spanish (strange that critics are more forgiving of spoken poetry in, say, Pedro Costa's films). Then--and this may have been lost on those who had to rely on English subtitles--Isagani continues the poem in Filipino. He has, in effect, used his literary skills to translate the poem from the colonialist's tongue to the colonized--brought the poem home (and remember the original meaning of the word "translate" is "to transfer") to the people it was meant for. Simoun then takes over and finishes the poem in Spanish.

This unintended failure in translation omits a dramatic high point in the film--a high point that, incidentally, redeems the abovementioned 'hoary discussion' on art. In the midst of the Katipunan's defeat, while Gregoria searches for her husband, the Colorum wait for Rizal, and the country dreams of Bernardo Carpio, the most unambiguously hopeful act in the film is a man teaching a poem to a girl, then translating that poem into their native language--a poem that will presumably be passed on to their children, and to their children's children. Differences between Isagani and Simoun, between Gregoria and Cesaria, between the Philippines and Spain are not so much forgotten as put in perspective: that in the vaster scheme of things, art lasts. In a country where little remain standing past their first decade--not houses (flimsy wood) nor buildings (neglected to the point of crumbling) nor modern dictatorships (twenty-one years at best)--art endures. Art is possibly the country's best most cost-effective chance at immortality.

Ah no--no. Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis is a gorgeous film that traces the outlines of the Philippine character, flaws and virtues and all, from the ferment of an end-of-the-century rebellion through four hundred years of colonial past down to ancient pagan roots. If every foreign critic hated it for its many flawed details (forgot to mention, some of the Spanish sounded stilted), its dialogue-heavy dramaturgy, its (ultimately irrelevant) length, none of this would matter. The film was made for us Filipinos, to fill our hunger for poetry and narrative and magic, to give us back a sense of our storied past, our mythical and historical dead.

First published on Businessworld. 3.22.16


A said...

I'll probably need to rewatch it, hopefully there will be a second run here in the country. But I do have to admit that I did find the movie engaging enough nevertheless I do feel a comment made before in another article by Adrian Martin on Norte does capture my reservations about this particular film:

"There was a certain thrill to this – the kind that persuades you to endure eight-hour screenings, in search of a new kind of filmic epiphany. But as the years pass and the Diaz ‘formula’ hardens, it becomes more difficult to excuse the lack of inventiveness and craft in his work..."

Ironically this is what I see this movie more of, which I do agree with your review does tick many of themes and styles he's used before that I think complaining about them now seems peculiar. Rather, I fall more in the issue that this one does feel more standard, for better and worse. I still need to muse around the movie, I did just watch it, and I definitely plan to watch it again to have a clearer opinion, fingers crossed it gets a repeat viewing like Norte did -- I feel like a 2nd screening is necessary since let us just say there were a lot of fiascos in the cinema I was watching at.

But I suppose it has more appeal for those watching his movies for the first time, to be introduced to the cinema of Lav Dias, I think this is what this particular movie aimed for more -- or at least it felt in that direction. That it feels like he's trying to engage the masses more while not compromising his concerns and styles, and doing so within what he has done before. Perhaps, I would say among his features this and Norte are fairly good spring boards to his cinema.

Noel Vera said...

The standard tropes are there, but there's more. It's an engagement with a particularly beloved period of the historical past for Filipinos. That plus the tikbalangs functioning like The Common Man in Robert Bolt's play, plus the use of noirish angles (plus a chiaroscuro lighting straight out of Filipino komiks) is something I submit is new.

Noel Vera said...

O pronouns--let me try that again...

I do think I acknowledge some of Adrian's reservations as having merit, or being unable to refute them. Lav's is a work in progress, I'll admit--but at what point should we stay patient? I suppose Adrian has reached his limit and I can't blame him for that.

I do submit Lav's shorter earlier works show the skill Adrian misses--if you or he could ever watch Hesus Rebolusyonaryo, that's as compact and pared down as Lav's ever been.

A said...

Watched it a second time, I have to say its a lot "easier" to watch a second time around, in particular the first 3 hours of the movie benefit from it as you understand better the narrative hints that Lav Diaz uses to reference El Filibusterismo and weave it unto the revolutions of the time. Put simply, he more or less took the same route Jacques Rivette does with his films, it's a fantasy set in a world that, on the surface, resembles the real world. After a the third hour, once the mythical creatures come into the play, that is when I felt transported.

That said... I have to say I find the top-billed lead actors, John and Piolo, to be somewhat weaker as compared to the other cast in terms of pulling of their characters. I think they tended to stick out like a sore thumb, especially John-Lloyd as you wonder how he can remain so damned pristine through out (well ironed shirt, hair is well combed through out, really clean looking face, etc) he just stuck out in comparison to the other actors/actresses who were playing similar roles. Adding to that I never really saw this sort of intensity or internalizing of the role that I saw with the other characters, in particular Hazel and the three Tikbalang's or Qiroga's ladies. They never really convince me so to speak. Frankly, I was just looking forward for their particular narrative thread, whenever the episode came up, to end as I wanted to see more of Gregoria's group.

Moreover, I think that unlike his previous films I find there was less work to be done in terms of deciphering what the director wants to "say". In so much that he was more explicit about "history repeating itself" and the "youth is the answer" and "let go of hatred" in that its literally spelled out rather than teased upon, like we would his other films (think Norte as a recent example). I assume this was more because of what I said earlier, in that this feels like it was intended for a wider audience and was more of an introduction overall.

Noel Vera said...

Gotcha on the acting. Personally I stopped looking closely at performances, especially those called 'wooden.' If the guy or gal isn't blatantly overacting I'll assume the director was more interested in using the actor as a prop or for an effect (I'd include the tikbalangs as an effect), and leave it at that.

Diaz has lectured before--I remember his father figure, usually some elder or man of experience in Batang West Side, for one; at least in Norte when Sid Lucero pontificated you felt ambivalent because he comes off as such a jerk (and I liked the overall effect). Maybe this was pitched at a wider audience--it's one of his more accessible works.