Conrad De Quiros

I saw a dazzling Filipino movie the other weekend. It’s not one of the entries in the current Metro Manila Film Festival. I don’t know when–or if–it will be shown in regular theaters. I understand it’s all the people who made the movie can do to find a booking for it.

I’m talking of Lav Diaz’s “Batang West Side,” which is a record Filipino movie in more ways than one. The most obvious way being that it is five hours and 15 minutes long, which in fact makes it a record movie anywhere in the world. There have been longer movies, one Japanese movie, if I recall right, being more than 12 hours, but they are meant to be watched in installments. This one demands to be seen in one blow. And should be. It’s not episodic, it’s one very tight piece of work.

Lav would tell me later he figured we had fairly solid tradition of watching long movies, to go by the double features in the provinces. But double features are precisely two movies, not one, and are generally comedies and action movies. Not one that requires thoughtful and sustained attention.

Which is the reason “Batang West Side” is having problems finding a place for exhibition. I saw it in Glorietta 4, which is a small theater with a reputation for showing largely non-commercial films. I understand that is also the reason it hasn’t found a place in international competitions–to which it eminently belongs–since festival organizers impose a time limit on movies. Even Francis Ford Coppola apparently had to trim down “Apocalypse Now” to less than three hours to meet that requirement.

I don’t know what Lav can do to satisfy the demands of practicality and aesthetics, public acceptance and artistic integrity. But I do know his work deserves as wide audience as possible, preferably in its pristine state. I wish him all the luck in the world.

“Batang West Side’s” length aside, I myself am curious to know how the general public would greet its theme. It tells of the life of a group of Filipinos in America, which may not be so easy for everyone to relate to. I personally am wondering if my having gotten deeply engrossed in it does not owe to my having caught a glimpse of that life too. Certainly, the mood of the movie–which is one of the things it does so brilliantly, capture the mood of that life in all its wintry starkness–struck a sympathetic chord in me. But I also imagine that the phenomenon of the overseas Filipino workers will allow many Filipinos to experience the shock of recognition when they see the movie. The differences between living in the United States and in the OFW destinations–Hong Kong, Saudi arabia–may be monumental, but not so the feelings of homesickness, alienation and a sense of drift.

In “Batang West Side,” Joel Torre is a Filipino cop in New Jersey (West Point graduate and 10-year resident) who investigates the murder of a Filipino youth named Hansel Harana. The cop’s investigation leads him to a confrontation partly with the world he left behind, and with a world he barely knows. The latter is the life of Filipinos in America, a life lived on the fringes, or margins, or pores, of society, with its huge pains and small triumphs, with its unrelenting drudgery and sudden bursts of violence, with its invisibility and assertion through drugs, particularly shabu, the gateway to power trips.

Above all, Torre’s investigation leads him to a confrontation with himself, to his own demons, whose assaults have left him as emotionally crippled as shabu has done mentally to the objects of his sleuthing. The ending may be a little bitin to an audience used to straightforward resolutions–and which has waited for more than five hours to know what really happened to Harana; they might cry out “harang”–but I myself found it as it should be. I’ll leave the reader with that mysterious comment as an enticement to see the movie.

Everything about the movie is dazzling. It has very few false notes. The writing–which was done by Lav himself–is taut, the dialogue crisp and biting. He is one fantastic storyteller, introducing his details with the deftness of a magician performing a grand trick, till they work a shimmering, lingering, illusion–or truth–in the mind. He is an equally fantastic director, the whole movie resonating with control. Even the sudden bursts of violence controlled–controlled fury is always more furious than a wanton one. The acting is uniformly excellent. Torre, of course, is his usual excellent self, but the revelation is Yul Servo, who essays the teenager Hansel. There’s a boy to watch out for.

A fierce intelligence runs through this movie, an intelligence however that is not artsy-craftsy. On the contrary, it is one that has a lot of heart. I felt moved by this movie in ways most other movies have not moved me, local or foreign. It insinuates itself into the mind and heart so subtly you are not sure at what point you have yielded completely.

If I have any quibbles with the movie, they are very small ones. Chief of them is that characters in this movie have very dysfunctional backgrounds. I would have been curious to see the effects of living in America–I suddenly remembered Woody Allen’s quip that he believed there was an intelligence in the cosmos with the exception of certain parts of New Jersey–among people with more “normal” backgrounds. Which is also the reason I thought Torre’s revelation of–and coming to terms with–a truly dark past seems a little superflous. You do not need to have such a past to develop that kind of alienated behavior as a Filipino in America. But like I said, these are minor, and just quibbling.

Cesar Montano should stop complaining. If there is a milestone in Filipino moviemaking, it is not “Bagong Buwan,” it is “Batang West Side.” It ups the ante on quality, local movies that aspire for the moon henceforth having this to reckon with. If it isn’t a runaway winner in next year’s movie awards, I’ll have the most serious doubts about the competence of our judges.

Originally published at the Philippine Daily Inquirer, January 3, 2002