Nervous Translation (2017)

I’ve covered Filipino mainstream romcom films directed by women, and also a personal essay film, but this is a tender indie festival drama about a young girl growing up in the 1980s, an impressive film from a new director who has made a couple of period dramas so far this decade.

In many ways this is quite a wonderful film, in the way it focuses on a child’s point-of-view without being cute or sentimental, and sets it in a period (the 1980s) without overreliance on reducing that era to a series of easy cliches. Yael (Jana Cassandra Agoncillo) is a quiet, slightly lonely child who listens to tapes sent by her father from Riyadh, and there’s a growing sense throughout of why he’s there and what’s going on with the family, but it’s never fully developed because the point-of-view remains rooted in the young girl. This means that while it can be frustrating not always knowing quite what’s going on, there’s a really consistent and beautifully evocative sense of atmosphere, with a precise use of camera and a sure visual sense suffusing the whole piece.

Nervous Translation film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Shireen Seno; Cinematographers Albert Banzon, Jippy Pascua and Dennese Victoria; Length Jana Cassandra Agoncillo, Angge Santos, Sid Lucero; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Friday 31 May 2019.

Independencia (aka Independence, 2009)

Following on from my post about John Gianvito’s documentary diptych about the Philippines, which touches on Filipino independence in the late-19th cenutry, another film set touching on the same historical events was made by a Filipino filmmaker in 2009. It has a distinctive style, different from that of his more famous compatriot Lav Diaz, but captures something about how the past intertwines with the present.

There’s a strange and haunting atmosphere imbued with the uncanny that haunts a lot of Guy Maddin’s similar pastiches on silent films, but with more poise and mystery. For a film so short it also nevertheless reminded me of Lav Diaz’s (much longer) film A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery (2016), in that both are set around the turn of the 20th century, at the time just after the Philippines gained its independence from Spain, and which spend a lot of time in lush jungle terrains, though Independencia brings up the American occupation that came soon after independence (and whose effects are arguably still felt, as John Gianvito covered in his documentary epic, mentioned above). What sets Martin’s film apart is the style, which mimics that of early cinema, shot of sets using the sometimes harsh and inconstant natural light of the sun, lending that uncanny quality I mentioned earlier, a sense of a film dealing with a distant past and yet one which nevertheless persists.

Independencia film posterCREDITS
Director Raya Martin; Writers Martin and Ramon Sarmiento; Cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie; Starring Tetchie Agbayani, Sid Lucero, Alessandra de Rossi; Length 77 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 November 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.

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.