Planet of the apes
In his latest Lav Diaz has apparently toned down attacks on the Marcos and Duterte regimes, but if you think he's done so to deliver a kindler gentler more optimistic film to help us forget present troubles--think again.Lahi, Hayop (Genus Pan) tells the story of three men on the fictional Islang Hugaw (Dirty Island), having just finished contractual work in a pocket gold mine--they have earned money to take home, but only after handing over a cut of their paycheck to the Manager (of the mine) to the Captain and Sergeant (the local law enforcement) and to co-worker Baldo (Nanding Josef) who doubles as the company's local recruiter. "I thought I could save money for my sister's medication," Andres (Don Melvin Boongaling) complains to Paulo (Bart Guingona).
To leave, Andres, Paulo, and Baldo must hire an outrigger canoe (paying the usual jacked-up prices) to take them to the far side of the island's forest, after which they hike back to their hometown (there's a more direct route, but again they must pay more). Along the way they walk, exchange stories, debate, encounter a mythical black horse pawing the waters in a murmuring stream.
It's hard to categorize this latest work: is it Lav's retelling of The Treasure of Sierra Madre, his cautionary tale on the corrupting influence of gold? Yet another allegory about fascist governments with miners as feudal serfs and the company as omnipresent oppressive lord? A meditation on the crisscrossing influence of Malay, Spanish, Japanese, and American culture on hapless islanders? A demonstration of Darwin's theory of evolution in action? A mix or combination of some or all of the above?
The film hops forward a few days; Andres arrives alone, with his, Paulo's, and Baldo's money in his pockets. He tells a pathos-filled version of what happened while a fellow villager named Inggo (Joel Saracho) interjects his, for his own purposes. A Rashomon-style situation, Lav implies, but with a difference: where god sees the truth and waits, the devil wastes no time stepping in to take advantage.
Behind the foreground narrative is the image of workers tramping their way back to their families, the powers that be having exacted their unfair share and standing aloof, unaware and uncaring of their employees' slow progress. Behind that stand various setpieces--Baldo telling the tale of World War 2 Japanese abducting women from nearby villages, to 'service' furloughed soldiers (same way the company brings prostitutes to the mining camp, to service Baldo and Paulo); Inggo speaking of Galleon Trade ships landing contraband on the island, of smugglers setting up camp, of the Chinese using the island as staging ground to supply opium to the rich in various countries. Implied in his monologue: the islanders profit little from all this underground economic activity, but inevitably suffer the consequences.
The crosscultural fertilization, incidentally, results in folks of mixed race such as Baldo and Paulo, who are half-Japanese (whether Baldo or Paulo or any other villagers consider this a blessing or curse is a matter of conjecture); it also produces the rich skein of folklore (the smugglers, the comfort women, the mysterious black horse) cast across the island, partly fabricated to discourage the curious.
The island's dark history has darker less obvious consequences: a feeling of self-loathing among the villagers; a marked antipathy towards the collective good; a pervasive sense of despair.
Behind even the mixed cultural heritage is a sense of the forces shaping human destiny. Paulo's radio blares not music but oddball talk show chatter, and at one point tunes in on a voice explaining to his host the theory of the 'chimpanzee brain'--that evolution isn't a uniform progress, and that while a select few of us have fully developed cortexes focused on the welfare of the human race as a whole, most are stuck with chimpanzee minds obsessed only with immediate gain. Lav has used this device before--in Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino, the radio broadcasts bizarre melodramas--here the voice's withering assessment of man's biological backwardness serves as hilarious comment on the three partially developed apes, listening without hearing a word.
Hilarious yet sobering, as subsequent events prove the unseen authority prophetic: turns out we are all underdeveloped apes, unable to see further than the overripe banana withering under our collective nose.
The filmmaker provides visual equivalent to his thesis: the three men toil and struggle and collapse exhausted against the background of some of the most lushly lyrical landscapes this side of recent cinema. I remember the first time Lav tried black-and-white photography, in Ebolusyon some sixteen years back; I remember the grainy often ghostly 16 mm images mixed with largely flat video footage and thinking the 16 mm, however poor the quality of celluloid or transfer, looked far more dramatic than the video.
Lav has grown immensely in his craft: the images here are razor sharp and intricately detailed, stunning in their breadth and variety. Andres, Baldo, Paulo ride a small outrigger and the little boat slides serenely across a vast plate of sea; the three pause in a grove and Lav has them sit unwittingly before a wall of bamboo spears, crossing and uncrossing in shadowy light; the three hump up a hill the wind a constant hum, and the hillside grass ripples like an elder woman's silver mane.
And it's not empty travelogue prettiness: the sea the bamboo grove the hill of rippling grass have a mute but unmistakable presence to them, not so much menacing as imperious impervious infinite. Questions come to mind: why, if there's so much natural wealth about them, do these miners suffer punishing work and slave wages? Why do they begrudge each other, steal hurt kill to collect silly little pieces of paper? How can they be so sad in the midst of so much beauty? Lav contrasts these three grubby lives against that beauty without comment, for one to notice or ignore as one pleases.
O and did I say Lav has taken a step back from his attacks? I lied. Inggo's campaign against Andres evokes the present president's whisper campaign to undermine the opposition and further his self-promotion (those speaking out against him are either communists or drug criminals; the president is the greatest in the solar system; the government response to the pandemic is highly successful; and so on). The police action in the film's latter half is a blatant depiction of one of Duterte's trademark EJKs--extra-judicial killings--simply and stunningly staged, basically dialogue and some judicious cutting. If Lav's allusions here lack the spark and smolder of his Ang Hupa (The Halt) or his four-hour 'musical' masterpiece Panahon ng Halimaw (Season of the Devil) that's possibly because he's banked the smolder, allowed it to radiate as opposed to engulfing his discourse, taken that aforementioned measured step back to appreciate the more cosmic view: not of a single dictator's brutal folly but of man's ongoing longstanding abuse of his fellow man, wherever and whenever power is involved.
If there's an exception to Lav's observation, if anyone represents any hope that perhaps our species can move beyond its simian origins (and here's where the significance of Lav's choice of title--in Tagalog 'race, animal,' in English 'a genus of great apes including the chimpanzee and the bonobo ape'--comes crashing down on our unsuspecting heads) it's Andres. As played by Boongaling, Andres first comes off as a whiner, often confiding to Paulo about this or that past grievance committed by the company (Paulo often resorting to a "That's how it is," or "It's the will of God," or an exasperated "Shut up!"). We realize that only Andres seems to have any memory of the past--or only Andres seems to consistently acknowledge the existence of the past and is willing to act on that knowledge (Paulo does dredge up his and Baldo's history, with disastrous consequences). Andres for all his naivete and clumsiness is the only one with the fully evolved desire to move forward--to ask provocative questions, seek troubling answers. He for better or worse represents our one slender fragile hope of ever escaping this monkey planet.
First published in Businessworld 10.2.20