Vengeance is mined
Lav Diaz's Kapag Wala Nang Mga Alon (When the Waves are Gone) premiered out-of-competition at the 2022 Venice Film Festival to muted if appreciative applause. If the acclaim isn't as loud, that may be because the film isn't as epically proportioned as A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery or as politically incendiary as The Halt or Season of the Devil. What it is tho is Alexander Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo told only as Diaz can: leisurely paced, crudely recorded (on severely monochrome Kodak 16 mm), with absolutely no music whatsoever (all onscreen singing or dancing performed a capella).
And it's a revenge story.
Actually the film bears only passing resemblance to The Count of Monte Cristo-- an interviewer pointed out the similarity to Diaz, which he corrected. Which points to one truth about retribution stories: they look and feel much the same. The permutations are limited (man wronged seeks retribution, either gets it or fails), and so are the satisfactions and sufferings pursuer or pursued can feel.
Limited or not vengeance remains a popular premise and Diaz manages a few fresh details. Lieutenant Hermes Papauran (John Lloyd Cruz) is Metro Manila's top police investigator; he resigns when a bad case of psoriasis erupts over much of his body. Diaz takes a cue from one of his earliest films-- Serafin Geronimo: Criminal of Barrio Concepcion-- and proposes a character whose psychic anguish manifests somatically. Geronimo, who participated in a kidnapping gone horribly wrong, felt the guilt of his crime through a throbbing abscessed tooth; Hermes feels the guilt of the crimes he witnessed through an unending itch spread throughout scalp and back. Hermes was perhaps tangentially involved in former president Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs, and if you've read the reports and seen the photographs you'd have an idea of how bloody that was.
"But Hermes only witnessed them," one might point out; "he didn't commit them." That's Hermes' version of the truth; given his position in the police force and given his propensity for outbursts of anger and violence (we have a sample of that anger early in the film) and given the seriousness of his condition (really a triumph of understated Filipino prosthetic art, wide stretches of skin peeling away from head neck shoulders) one wonders if he was merely a witness. He definitely feels responsible.
I thought John Lloyd Cruz extraordinary as Servando Monzon in Diaz's previous A Tale of Filipino Violence, down to the scene where Servando meets his imprisoned half-brother Hector-- Cruz basically confronting himself. In this film Cruz employs a different approach, from man facing his own dark reflection to man struggling under the near-unbearable burden of guilt, the struggle constantly manifesting as layer after sloughing layer of crispy dead skin.
If Hermes is guilty it's difficult to think of a more appropriate judge and executioner than Primo Macabantay (Ronnie Lazaro). Hermes' investigations led to Primo's arrest and ten-year incarceration; now Primo is out of jail and wants his pound of flesh, preferably carved from Hermes' own.
But Primo's more than just a hunter; he's an imp, a jester, a fool crazed by and reflecting the craziness of the world, dancing out his frustrations through tap and disco, attempting to 'cleanse' sinners through sudden often violent acts of baptism. He could have stepped straight out of Lazaro and Diaz's last significant collaboration Heremias (2006) which followed a similar fool (also Lazaro), only seeking to prevent a crime not commit it. Unlike Heremias, Primo is no innocent; Primo implies in his stories his involvement in killings and kidnappings-- he knows what he's done. But he also knows what Hermes has done, and right or wrong intends to punish Hermes not to the fullest extent of the law but to the fullest extent of his abilities-- going so far as to specify the kind of stabbing implement he plans to use, describe the technique and locations on Hermes' body he intends to puncture and mutilate.
You might call Ronnie Lazaro the grand old man of Filipino independents, having appeared in everything from Tikoy Aguiluz's Boatman to Raymond Red's Bayani to Heremias to this feature; he's certainly one of Philippine cinema's most intense, having once confessed in an interview that he internalizes his characters to the point that-- once production is over-- he has difficulty exorcising them from his head. Primo may possibly be Lazaro's most audacious creation: by turns hilarious and threatening, this killer-hunter-savior is rarely predictable, is never anything less than magnetic.
Diaz's direction often flirts with a noir look, its often black-and-white cinematography making dramatic use of deep digital blacks and blown-out imagery; with Waves he goes full-on noir, his night scenes almost exclusively composed of nightmare shadows and stark lighting, said compositions softened by the subtler grainier palette of 16 mm-- to tell a harsh story in effect he deploys a more compassionate lens.
Asked about the decision to use the old-fashioned film format as opposed to digital, Diaz mentions wanting to re-experience "the crank, the sound, the fogginess, the discipline, the dirty grain, the ancient 4:3 aspect ratio, the nature of cinema." Based on his words, I'd say Diaz wanted to move away from modern digital's high-def convenience to something more hands-on. Also guessing the mechanical reality of having to deal with reels loaded with limited length of celluloid (he had to search for the only man left in the Philippines who knew how to load those reels) gave him the additional challenge he needed to force him out of his comfort zone. Thinking in tens of feet instead of gigabytes (that you can easily re-record) one has to think: this is it, the actor has only ninety seconds (or less) to say what you want him to say, no second chances. Then, of course, you pack away the film cans send them to a developer (in Romania!) and hope, weeks later, that what you shot actually makes sense, much less looks good.
A risky procedure, and the gambit seems to have galvanized the filmmaker (it certainly hasn't slowed the sixty-plus Lazaro any). Not that Diaz has picked up his pace to a more box-office friendly rate, but that his deliberate ruminative storytelling seems all the more stubborn, perverse, perhaps even heroic.
Perhaps even more heroic is Diaz's determination to follow this revenge tale to its bitter end: basically Hermes' confrontation with Primo-- in how many ways can the scenario play out? Diaz deliberately leans into this predictability, taking away sky, surroundings, even much of the night lighting to have both men standing on the aforementioned dock, facing each other. What can vengeance or its total failure bring to these men? What does any of this have to do with Duterte's war?
Several, I think. On a purely mechanical plot level witnessing (and possibly participating in) the horrors of Duterte's 'anti-drug' war may have caused Hermes' skin rot. Beyond that the government campaign strikes a tone of grimness and fear, the nihilistic hedonism of streetwalkers the only source of brief relief. Beyond that Primo's bloodthirsty quest and Hermes' injured sense of masculinity echoes that of the former president towards his enemies-- not just thinskinned but vindictive as hell. Beyond that Diaz has revealed this is only a third of what he's written and shot, and a more expansive version (including scenes set in Portugal) is in the works-- but saying 'to be continued' is cheap excuse; what we have here I'd say is intriguing enough and evocative enough to enjoy. What can vengeance bring? Diaz doesn't just ask but for once provides an answer-- elliptical but still an answer-- in this darkest of dark finales.