Thursday, September 14, 2023

Essential Truths of the Lake (Lav Diaz, 2023)

Lady of the lake

Call Lav Diaz's latest film Essential Truths of the Lake a prequel to his When the Waves are Gone (Kung Wala Nang Mga Alon 2022); call the film a deeper dive into Diaz's returning character Hermes Papauran, the oft-described 'greatest Filipino investigator ever.' 

Peter Debruge in his faintly sarcastic Variety review chided the film's failure "to show what makes (Hermes) the 'greatest'" -- I submit that put in context the assertion makes more sense; as I noted in Diaz's Norte the End of History genius police officers aren't really a thing in the Philippines; if anything their investigations are notorious for being unreliable and slow, often play a key role in any government cover-up to follow. Crime is rarely an intricate much less rational enterprise in this country; killings are committed by casual contractors with tacit approval of law enforcers, conducted through a chain of middlemen-- the higher the rank, the longer the chain (good luck trying to trace anything back to former president Duterte, who is likely guilty of the same crime as former president Trump: he pushed people to do their worst, and they more than willingly did his bidding). Criminal methods are just as erratic with results dependent not on the brilliance of the criminal mind but on sheer happenstance, and incompetence (from both sides). 

Hermes does confront apparent behind-the-scenes power Jack Barquero (Bart Guingona). Sparring verbally over cups of rice coffee with the waters of Taal Lake as background, Hermes sketches Barquero's background for him. "very good," Barquero admits, but asks the million-peso question: can you solve the case (unspoken: can you catch me?)? Hermes' answer is as elliptical as anything Diaz has presented: the question (he asserts) is too broad, as broad as the lake behind Barquero. 

Debruge is more on target guessing "what really matters isn't solving cases but refusing to abandon them." Call Diaz an ardent practitioner of the Sisyphean School of Suffering: you pick your stone, you exert endless effort rolling it up a hill; you may never achieve your goal but the exercise develops one's patience and is perhaps good for the soul (alternate title: School of Extreme Spiritual Aerobics). No extra points for guessing that Hermes Papauran* is Diaz's avatar-- unlike Hermes, however, Diaz has had the luck to actually finish his works and put them out there, for us in turn to persevere watching.

*(The surname simply means 'mythological;' the given name is from the herald of Greek gods and a psychopomp-- a conductor of souls to the afterlife (you might say Hermes is obsessed because he's lost track of this particular soul and can't rest till he's guided it to its correct destination))

Actually Diaz doesn't seem to create characters so much as he fashions marble figures with names appended to their respective pedestals ('integrity' 'malice' 'chaos'), then working with the respective actors to humanize them. Hence Hermes-- allegorically loaded he may be-- is rendered all too human flesh by John Lloyd Cruz with understated intensity: in Hermes' conversation with his colonel (a tremendous Agot Isidro) he admits to the distress of watching innocents gunned down. His memories-- staged by Diaz with surreal flair-- are indistinguishable from nightmares, his confession skittering so close to hysterical rambling the colonel is forced to shut him down. All this in medium shot, at a picnic table over bowls of egg noodles, framed by a row of trees and a view of the sea-- Diaz loves underplaying his melodrama and in passages like this (and later when the colonel with her back to Hermes attempts to hide her true feelings from him) the scene can have an impact. 

Later we hear Hermes on the phone talking to his son Nick and glean from details and snatches of dialogue that Hermes' domestic situation is not much more tranquil (or rather tranquil in the way a frozen lake is tranquil; after affectionately exchanging words with Nick he asks to speak to his wife, who hangs up). Later we see Hermes sit down with Melchora (Susan Africa, also very good) and admit to her that grateful as he is for the food she cooks for him, he's on a restrictive diet due to skin asthma-- the somatic manifestation of his guilt that would grow immensely worse in the next film. 

Diaz's and cinematographer Larry Manda's work in black and white only grows more impressive with every feature: the outdoor dance glows an unearthly white, the nighttime shadows have a velvet depth. Diaz lets a shot run on for minutes with lightly off-balanced framing; part of the fascination of his images despite the leisurely pace is that you're teased into trying to figure out how it's off-balanced-- once you do you're then teased into trying to figure out why. Diaz has also been working on sound design, and here the twisted cries and whispers during the nightmare sequences are an effective low-cost way of suggesting Hermes' torment. 

As the woman at the heart of the Philippine Eagle cold case, Shaina Magdayo's Esmeralda Stuart shines. Impossibly beautiful, she works against her beauty to suggest a lost soul trying to be heard, in dance, theater, or film. She's confessed to suffering abuse but has also apparently slept her way to fame; she's by turns activist, scandal, madonna, whore. What's the truth? We're not sure-- Diaz through Hermes through documentary filmmaker Jane Liway (Hazel Orencio) approach her from several angles and invites her again and again to pour her heart out to the camera and still she remains an enigma, a stubborn unknown. Diaz follows Dumas' dictum and noir's axiom-- cherchez la femme; Shaina's Esmeralda offers few answers but keeps us watching anyway.  

Which may have pushed Hermes over the edge. At one point he pulls on Esmeralda's formfitting eagle costume and runs about, spreading widefingered wings and frightening the occasional bystander-- possibly Diaz poking fun at the superhero genre (Hermes-- The Legend Who Won't Give Up) but you feel there's a little more to this. Diaz earlier showed us folks who might appreciate the crossdressing, possibly under the influence of illegal substances, but Hermes pointedly avoids that crowd-- mostly he's by himself, a wild figure posing against sunscorched wilderness. You feel the film is most alive in these moments-- the image of the loner and wanderer persists in Diaz's films, and you feel as if there's nothing he'd like to do more than a really really long film where someone just walks across the world in an endless unknown quest (almost did that film too-- see Heremias Book One: The Legend of the Lizard Princess with its sequel (Book Two) still forthcoming). The loneliness Diaz suggests is both terrifying and exhilarating and I suspect those who respond to his films feel that pull too, like standing at a high cliff edge savoring the urge to jump.

At this point the colonel pulls the plug on the case and Hermes is led away with little protest; then Taal erupts (the center of the lake is a giant caldero) and a more hirsute more casually dressed Hermes returns, working against all hope to uncover still more clues to Esmeralda's disappearance (clues and all else likely buried under tons of volcanic ash turned by rain into concrete). Hermes is asked: what's the point? "That's the way it goes," the detective shrugs. "Everything starts from nothing." 

Which makes me question Debruge's closing assertion (my last reference to the piece, promise), that Diaz "hasn't lost faith in the (justice) system." Hermes is back  in clear violation of his colonel's orders-- gone rogue, or at least surrendered his badge. Can't let the issue go, so he's continued as a private citizen. 

Later Hermes encounters Diaz's version of Duterte's extrajudicial killing (EJK), where a luckless man is accused of stealing, and the contrast between cold case and latest death is instructive: the former inhabits his mind rent-free and in many ways is the more haunting-- the way Marcos' crimes still obsess us because they remain unpunished, much less unresolved-- but we live in the here and now, with newer monsters in our midst. At some point we must make a choice: keep hold, or let go? We know what happens to Hermes-- or at least we have a clue, if we've seen When the Waves are Gone-- but for this chapter at least Diaz leaves matters for us to decide. 

First published in Businessworld 9.8.23

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