Bayang Ina Mo (Motherland, 2017)

A film about an enormous maternity hospital in Manila, it doesn’t take long to realise how crowded things are when you see expectant mothers rolled on to the edges of beds already occupied, even playing with their babies two to a bed as well. Indeed, by the end we see the hospital celebrating the birth of the 100 millionth Filipino, and you get a sense that a fair few of them have come through here. The lack of funds means those with weak babies — which is the area of the hospital this film largely focuses on — don’t get incubators but are instead encouraged to wear tube tops to hold their babies close to them as part of the ‘kangaroo medical care’ programme. The women are admonished for not using them 24/7, while a nurse on a microphone at the end of the ward dispenses life advice like a Greek chorus. From out of this chaos the film starts to introduce individual stories and eventually we get to know the situations of a few of the (very poor, very Catholic) women, some of whom are very young, others of whom have five or more kids already. We see them turn down free contraception for frustratingly vague (but obviously religious) reasons, and we see the struggle to come up with even the very small fees being charged, though some of them at least have supportive husbands who are allowed to visit briefly and get to wear the tube tops as well. Like the best documentaries it’s a fascinating look into a world most of us won’t see and it’s a compassionate one too.

Director Ramona S. Diaz; Cinematographers Clarissa delos Reyes and Nadia Hallgren; Length 94 minutes.

Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Monday 7 August 2017.


Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis (A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery, 2016)

Another of Lav Diaz’s epic-length films of people wandering about in the woods, which appeals to a certain type of self-congratulatorily masochistic film geek (I can hardly exempt myself). That said, it’s not that it doesn’t have its power, just that it’s rather attenuated if you’re not particularly familiar with Filipino history.

This is a story set around 1896 against the background of the Philippine Revolution, whose leader was Andres Bonifacio. Most of the characters in this film are connected with the key players and events (such the execution of Dr Jose Rizal, and the betrayal of Bonifacio by another revolutionary leader), and these are mentioned plenty of times, especially during an opening section set in the city, which features some lengthy dialogues in English and Spanish, but also in the long period of searching that Bonifacio’s wife Gregoria (Hazel Orencio) undertakes. I gather, too, from some quick Wikipedia research that at least some of the key characters (the ailing political leader Simoun, for example, who is seen for much of the film being carried across the islands by two retainers in the company of his friend) may be drawn from a novel by Rizal, albeit one based in part on the revolutionary actors in this national drama.

My point, though, is mostly that this is a film which is densely filled with allusions to Filipino history and literature, and which probably makes most sense on that level. There are occasional flourishes of supernatural mystery (a masked character who appears in the forest), somewhat à la Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, but the real star here is the fabulous monochrome cinematography. The landscape is lush and threatening by turns, and some of the set-pieces are really something.

However, my immersion in the world of Lav Diaz, for all that it has many pleasures, does make me greatly appreciate the concision of a good 90-minute film.

Director/Writer Lav Diaz; Cinematographer Larry Manda; Starring John Lloyd Cruz, Piolo Pascual, Hazel Orencio; Length 485 minutes.
Seen at London Gallery West, London, Thursday 2 March 2017.

Ang Babaeng Humayo (The Woman Who Left, 2016)

At a certain level, this is a classic story of revenge, as Horacia (Charo Santos-Concio) is released from prison after 30 years of false captivity and seeks out the rich man who set her up. However, this is a Lav Diaz film, so events unfold slowly, in high-contrast black-and-white. As Horacia formulates her plan she comes into contact with a number of poor street people, and getting to know them becomes in many ways more important than the plot. It is, then, I suppose a film again about Filipino society (at a specific point in time, the late-90s) but also about time taken away — which is a little bit of meta-commentary for the patient audience, given the usual length of Diaz’s films (though this one is under four hours).

The Woman Who Left posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Lav Diaz; Starring Charo Santos-Concio; Length 228 minutes.
Seen at London Gallery West, London, Sunday 5 March 2017.

Heremias: Unang aklat — Ang alamat ng prinsesang bayawak (Heremias: Book One — The Legend of the Lizard Princess, 2006)

Right, you probably all know this film is long: it’s Lav Diaz, and events will unfold as they will. Once you get over that — and the title which playfully suggests some kind of mystical/fantasy epic poem — the movement of time isn’t really an issue, and there’s necessarily a sort of documentary effect to the extreme length, as we watch our titular protagonist (Ronnie Lazaro) trudge along endless roads with a group of vendors selling their wares from ox-drawn carts. Heremias at length peels off on his own, and, at length, gets caught in a typhoon, from which he takes shelter. When he wakes, his cow has gone and his cart is burnt. By this point, we’re at around hour four and this is the mysterious crime he’s trying to unravel (after a fashion), but things go off track again and there’s a criminal conspiracy which reveals the limits of power in an autocratic society. So there are political themes (present in much of Diaz’s work that I’ve seen), and then there’s the repeated motif of roads stretching off across the landscape, into which (or from the horizon of which) Heremias trudges, seemingly endlessly. At great, great length.

Heremias: Book One film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Lav Diaz; Cinematographer Tamara Benitez; Starring Ronnie Lazaro, Sid Lucero; Length 510 minutes.
Seen at London Gallery West, London, Friday 3 February 2017.

Maynila, sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Light, 1975)

A young man comes to the big city to track down his girlfriend, gets sucked in, spat out: the classic narrative. I can’t really speak to the subtext here: presumably there is some level of allegory about the Marcos regime at work (Mrs Cruz, abducting village girls into prostitution rings, looks a bit like Imelda). But then again a lot of the social criticism is fairly clear: this is a film about poor people, those marginalised within a crumbling, exploitative, venal, corrupt system. There are no protections for workers, no safeguard against crime, and the rising anger our hero feels — towards the dehumanising effects of his disenfranchisement, and those who would exploit him — propel him towards the film’s (withheld, but evidently bleak) conclusion. This is all heady stuff — violence, underworld criminality, gay sex rings (touched upon in a way that’s barely sensational, more a weary expectation of normality) — but done with empathy towards the suffering.

Manila in the Claws of Light film posterCREDITS
Director Lino Brocka; Writer Clodualdo del Mundo, Jr (based on the novel Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag by Edgardo M. Reyes); Cinematographer Miguel de Leon; Starring Bembol Roca [as “Rafael Roco, Jr”], Hilda Koronel; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Monday 30 January 2017.

Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon (From What Is Before, 2014)

The Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz makes very long films. By all accounts, last year’s Norte, the End of History was among his most accessible features, and it’s three-and-a-half hours long. This new historical epic is a full two hours longer than that. It deals with a small coastal village (or “barrio”) in the early-1970s, in a period leading up to President Marcos’s declaration of martial law in 1972. However, if at a certain level Diaz seems to be railing against that regime and what it did to the country — and rather strongly too, given the occasional apocalyptic imagery (burning houses, cattle hacked to death, a treacherous rock with imputed healing powers) — it can also be seen as a rural drama of a community torn apart. The chief characters are Itang (Hazel Orencio) who cares for her developmentally challenged sister with little support or means to make money, a winemaker Tony (Roeder) with questionable motives, a tribal elder Sito (Perry Dizon) who despite everything wants to stick with his rice farming but also seems to be called upon to adjudicate community squabbles, and the priest Father Guido (Joel Saracho) who visits from time to time. Of course, over such a long running time, the interactions are developed in plenty of detail, and there are many other characters involved, but these are the chief ones, and it’s around them that the themes coalesce. The cinematography (also by the director) has a precise framing and its black-and-white palette is sometimes strikingly deployed. What drama exists is unforced and unravels slowly, the chief mysteries being what’s been going on around the village, and the arrival in town of first an itinerant woman selling goods, and then the military. It may not wow its viewers with big setpieces in the way of Hollywood thrillers, but over such an extended running time, it cannot help but linger in the mind for some time afterwards.

From What Is Before film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Lav Diaz; Starring Perry Dizon, Hazel Orencio, Roeder, Joel Saracho; Length 338 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (Studio), London, Tuesday 14 October 2014.

Norte, hangganan ng kasaysayan (Norte, the End of History, 2013)

It’s been a few days since I saw this epically long slow-burning Philippine drama, but it builds up over its length an uncanny quality that still resonates in my mind. Partially that’s to do with the running time. When your movie is as long as four hours or more, and made up of slow-paced quietly observant scenes, it creates a different way of watching, allowing one to relax into it (at least if it’s a good film, which this one is). As such, my star rating may not really do it justice, but that’s only because I’m still coming to grips with director Lav Diaz’s project here.

There are a handful of central characters whose stories fade in and out during the movie. First seen is Fabian (Sid Lucero), who has just dropped out of his law degree and is holding forth with two of his professors in a campus coffee shop. Fabian has a deeply-held, but also deeply-skewed, sense of morality — that he in essence should have freedom to exercise the power to kill those he considers to be morally wrong — that somewhat horrifies his professors, but who laugh it off (as perhaps we the viewers do) as the earnest protestations of an overthinking young student playing with powerful new ideas. The other central characters are a poor couple, Eliza (Angeli Bayani) and Joaquin (Archie Alemania), who live in the same village as Fabian and whose hopes of opening a roadside food stall have only just been overtaken by crippling debt as the film starts, due to Joaquin having sustained a serious leg injury. They owe large amounts of money to an overbearing moneylender who refuses to extend them any further time or credit. It’s from this initial setup that the film unfolds, slowing creating an all-encompassing drama of, well, crime and punishment.

I say that because it slowly becomes clear that in Fabian and his noxious morality are echoes of Dostoyevsky’s famous protagonist Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment. It’s clear from the little I’ve read about this film since that this was the director’s intention, though it’s been too long since I’ve read the Dostoyevsky novel to know how much else of it is reflected in the film. I suspect, in addition, that there’s a far richer and more suggestive background for those who are well-versed in recent Filipino history — the province where it’s set, Ilocos Norte, and which is referenced in the film’s title, was also the birthplace of controversial former president Ferdinand Marcos. Like these antecedents, perhaps, Fabian becomes progressively more single-minded, leading him to commit some pretty nasty deeds. However, the film has more than this going on, and in Joaquin it finds instead a sort of calm moral centre of goodness, an outlook he sustains despite his having been unjustly convicted for a crime of Fabian’s and locked away in a prison camp far from his wife and children.

The operation of fate here is implacable and operates quite separately from the protagonists’ actions and any entreaties to a higher power (Christian characters are seen occasionally, but the ineffectiveness of their belief seems almost comical, if not openly mocked). There is a particularly surprising death near the end — surprising as much for its off-hand presentation in a long quiet tracking shot, as the fact of it — and throughout the film, Diaz’s style of filmmaking, with its slow long takes tracking his central characters, hint that there will be some darker payoff that doesn’t always materialise. The long sequence that ends in the image shown on the poster included with this review is one such, as Eliza and her two children, by now long separated from Joaquin and suffering in extreme debt, walk slowly through the outskirts of the village towards the edge of a cliff, a metaphorical movement if ever there was one in this film.

This won’t be a film for people who like things to be all neatly wrapped up and accounted for by the end, but in some ways, the longer a film the more difficult that kind of resolution becomes. It’s certainly the case here, as we become integrated into the lives and places of these characters. And while there are various texts and histories in the background, the film is carried by its beautiful and starkly-framed cinematography, the camera moving fluidly and sinuously. The experience of the film with its extended sequences is like floating gently down a river, and indeed near the film’s end is featured a river, suggesting in its form the movement of time that the title would halt. But these lives, and this history, is destined to continue flowing.

Norte, the End of History film posterCREDITS
Director Lav Diaz; Writers Diaz and Rody Vera; Cinematographer Lauro Rene Manda; Starring Sid Lucero, Angeli Bayani, Archie Alemania; Length 250 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (Studio), London, Sunday 13 October 2013.