Batang West Side is an unequivocal masterpiece.
Read that again.
I know that it is common practice to allow a film to stand the test of time (people often say 10-20 years) before making such a claim, but I am that confident that this film will not only hold up over time, but be held in an even higher regard.
Why will Batang West Side challenge Philippine cinema? The film is long. Very long. It’s 5 hours. 2 ½ – 3 times the length of a conventional film. Many quip at the very thought of watching a five hour movie, and persevere in their argument that it is self-indulgent and arrogant to expect an audience to sit through it. But what they need to understand, Lav explains ever-so-eloquently in his director’s statement for the Hong Kong International Film Festival:
`Batang West Side is five hours long. For many this is an issue. A huge issue, and a headache to many here in the Philippines. But not an issue if we remember that there are small and large canvasses; brief ditties and lengthy arias; short stories and multi-volume novels; the haiku and The Iliad. This should be the end of the argument.’
Batang West Side is the antithesis of a present-day Filipino film, not only challenging our natural sensibilities on what the length of a film should be, but, even more so, challenging our sensibilities about how a (Filipino) film should be made. There is violence, but it is brief and subtle. There is a young couple, but there are no hot love scenes. There are parent-child arguments, but there is no melodrama. There are serious questions, but no half-assed answers.
How will Batang West Side change Philippine cinema? Precisely through challenging it. It is a common and acceptable practice for filmmakers to make films for an audience. To play to an audience’s sensibilities (there’s that word again), and make films that they will like and easily accept. But once in a while, just once in a while, you have to challenge an audience and hope that they grow with you as a result. Progress was never made without first attempting to defy the norm.
By making a film of this length, by making it in such a manner, by refusing to cut it, by the recognition it has received both here and overseas, the makers of Batang West Side serve as a shining example of the fortitude needed to reverse our cinema’s current stigma.
There are no weak links in the film. Its narrative flows smoothly. Its acting, from both veterans (Joel Torre, Gloria Diaz, among others) and young actors (Yul Servo, Priscilla Almeda) alike is uniformly solid. The film’s cinematography, courtesy of Miguel Fabie III, Tony Ponti, and Ruben Lee, is superb: a feat that should be commended to the high heavens if we are to believe the words of Diaz, that eighty percent of the film was shot with available light. Its editing by Ron Dale, despite the numerous complaints about the film’s length, is brilliant, each shot remaining on the screen long enough to provoke and let linger the film’s various ideas.
Batang West Side is about a lot of things. It’s about Fil-Ams, the American dream, family, infidelity, secrets, Martial Law, drugs, reflection, decisions, friendship, identity, patriotism, responsibility, and the collective murdering of the Filipino soul. It’s about questions more than it is about answers, and it’s about making us think, probe, examine, and ultimately reflect.
The bulk of Batang West Side is spent following a detective trying to answer the questions behind the death of Hanzel, but the case is never resolved. Who did kill Hanzel – gangsters? Drug addicts? His mother’s lover? Himself? The film doesn’t attempt to give any answers, and it’s only fitting that it doesn’t. On numerous occasions, our protagonist, Mijarez, is asked tough questions– by his therapist, by Hanzel’s mother, by the documentarian, among others. His answer each time speaks volumes, of him, of us, of our mentality:
`I don’t know’.
What director Lav Diaz has done with Batang West Side is craft a film so thorough in its dissection of its subject, and so engaging in its handling, that to watch it, in its entirety, is nothing short of a cathartic experience. It may just as well be us in the place of Joel Torre in the film’s last few frames, he alone in the middle of the cold New Jersey night, us alone with our thoughts in the middle of a cold movie theater, exhaling our repressed burdens and inhaling peace of mind.