Monday, October 10, 2022

Batang West Side (West Side Avenue, Lav Diaz, 2001)

Street child

Lav Diaz's Batang West Side (West Side Avenue, 2001), 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 at the time. 

It's an epic picture that, strangely, refuses to act like an epic--no towering sets, no large-scale 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 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, here Diaz 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 Dostoevsky's 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 various waves 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), later 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 GPAs in school, pay proper respect to their parents. These kids smoke, brawl, make out, do and push drugs (shabu (crystal meth) 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 classes and learns to use a computer; some of Hanzel's junkie friends hold down jobs, have relationships, are otherwise funny, likable people.

Diaz showed unusual sensitivity in portraying adolescents in his first feature (first made, second released) Burger Boys; one character-- the youth 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 the young face. Servo's Hanzel is that youth reborn, with the time and space to develop into a far more poignant figure-- an irredeemably lost soul, turning from mother to grandfather to underworld father figure in the hope of finding the love he's never received from any of them (think of his namesake, abandoned by parents in a dark Grimm forest). 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 remembered 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 to us Filipinos (Is immigration the great solution we 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, a correction of a longtime imbalance-- the weight and value of the Filipino soul, handed 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 first masterpiece, I think, and a great film.

(First published in Ekran Review for Film and Television, vol. 30, letnik XLII, 5-6 2005)

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