Up and coming Filipino director Lav Diaz has done the impossible in the history of Philippine cinema. As a novice in the world of moviemaking with two films under his belt, he stakes his newfound reputation on a movie which takes him, his cast and crew on a grueling eight-month shoot in the New York City area. Bucking the typical conventions of Filipino film, Diaz eschews fistfights, gunplay and steamy sex. During the shooting, the director abandons the standard 2-hour format and keeps the camera rolling as the film acquires a life of its own. He then edits his Coppola-length epic to 5 hours and then battles the producers to have ‘Batang West Side’ commercially distributed and screened. Of course, this was impossible since movie theaters in Manila would have to show it twice per day and in effect lose money at the tills.
At the 2001 Cinemanila Film Festival, ‘Batang West Side’ became the sleeper hit of the event and went on to become the toast of the 2002 Singapore International Film Festival. But its ultimate triumph was on home ground, at the Urian Awards last May wherein ‘Batang Westside’ won ten awards, including Best Director (Lav Diaz), Best Actor(Joel Torre), and Best Score (Joey Ayala). At the Urian, hitherto an event that catered to the lumpen masa, an art film stole the thunder from sexy star Assunta de Rossi. Scene from Batang West Side, Jersey City 2001. Photo courtesy of Lav Diaz. Lav Diaz gambled on the premise that in spite of its monster length, people would pay good money to see ‘Batang West Side’. And he was right. On June 28, the film had its first screening since its Cinemanila debut at the University of the Philippines Film Center. The venue was quickly filled up with young people – from students to working stiffs (including this writer) – and required additional plastic chairs for audience members in the aisles. Common sense dictates that a five-hour long movie necessitate exotic locations, thousands of extras and panoramic shots worthy of Bertolucci’s ‘1900’, deMille or Sir David Lean.
‘Batang West Side’ in comparison appears to be an overextended home video, with scenes filmed using available daytime light and during the night when the actors’ faces were hardly distinguishable from the background. In one location shoot inside a kitchen, one can also see the tip of the foam-padded boom mike protruding from the top of the screen. The movie lacked close-up shots, and in the style of Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Ran’, the camera work was restrained, contenting itself as an impassive observer of the unfolding action. Lav Diaz, as an avid student of cinema, borrows liberally from the masters of the medium-Bergman, Kurosawa, Kubrick, and injects the movie with elements borrowed from stage. ‘Batang West Side’ as a title is deceptive. At first glance, this movie might be seen as a parody of ‘West Side Story’ set amidst the high-rises and skyscrapers of Manhattan. In reality, the setting is more desolate than the glamor and romance associated with the Big Apple: West Side Avenue in Jersey City, a working-class town across the Hudson but half a world away, set in winter where lifelessness was a daily phenomenon that one would guess it was Siberia. Jersey City is a metaphor of the lives of the characters of ‘Batang West Side’–condemned to a lifetime of daily mind-dulling toil in an unforgiving urban milieu. West Side Avenue itself is a known hangout of bums, winos and drug dealers and it was where a young, newly-arrived Filipino immigrant named Hanzel Harana (Yul Servo) was gunned down one cold winter night. On the other side of town, a Filipino detective working for the Jersey City Police, Juan Mijares(Joel Torre)gets wind of the crime via his police car radio and immediately sets to work tracking down the perpetrator. His investigation leads him to the dead man’s mother Lolita(Gloria Diaz), his girlfriend Dolores(Priscilla Almeda sporting a faux-American accent), Lolita’s adulterous lover-housekeeper Bartolo(Art Acuna) and the conscience of the Harana family, Hanzel’s grandfather. As the story unfolds, each person that Hanzel comes into contact with contributes to the young man’s destruction. Having come to America to be reunited w/ Lolita, Hanzel quickly becomes disenchanted w/ his mother’s affair w/ Bartolo who responds to Lolita’s affections by extorting money from her to spend in the casinos of Atlantic City. Dolores tries to help ease Hanzel’s anguish, and the grandfather gets him to read books and current events but ultimately familial ties fail Hanzel. The alienated young man, in his need to belong to a community, earn a living and establish an identity, allies himself with a group of young Filipino-Americans who were more interested in bombing themselves out with booze and that uniquely Filipino import called methyl hydrochloride, popularly known as shabu. In this tense atmosphere, Mijares must find the truth. The quest theme is a very popular motif in film. Certain examples are Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, Oliver Stone’s ‘JFK’ and Rob Reiner’s ‘A Few Good Men.’ But ‘Batang West Side’ closely resembles Kurosawa’s 1951 film classic ‘Rashomon’, where the presiding magistrate and ultimately the audience were forced to deduce wildly different reconstructions of a rape and a murder. Perhaps the most powerful scene in ‘Batang West Side’ is the montage where everybody from Bartolo, a rival gang and his own comrades shoot Hanzel in rapid succession. So who killed Hanzel Harana? Symbolically speaking, everybody. In Lav Diaz’s reinterpretation of the immigrant Filipino’s struggle to attain the “American Dream”, he presents an alternative version where instead of reinventing themselves into solid, industrious, upright civic-minded American citizens, Filipino migrants used their time-tested skills in deception, opportunism and rapacity which worked so well in their native Philippines to get ahead in an alien environment. Indeed, the need to mislead others resonates throughout the film. To ensure a wholesome family environment for her long-lost son, Lolita omits mention of the fact that she has been under Bartolo’s thumb while Lolita’s American husband Gordon, his mental faculties all but destroyed by stroke, sits by uncomprehending. Hanzel shows off his new digs to his doting grandfather who was deliberately kept ignorant of the fact that his grandson supported himself by selling drugs. One member of Hanzel’s surrogate family spends most of his time onscreen ironing his clothes in preparation for a shabu-trafficking score in West Side Avenue, as if he were selling insurance. As a cover for their nefarious activities, Hanzel’s brotherhood engage in supposedly legitimate enterprises such as the videoke bar and the vehicle maintenance shop where they congregate and idly shoot the breeze about making their impoverished home country the shabu superpower capital of the world. Probably the most outrageous put-on was the ostensibly upright Juan Mijares himself, the diligent, persistent police detective in search for the young Harana’s killer. Other than conducting the investigation, he is busy unburdening himself of his terrible secret to his therapist. Mijares, a hardened veteran of numerous homicide cases, was stopped cold in his tracks by the death of a fellow countryman, a complete stranger whom he first met as a corpse sprawled on the West Side sidewalk. The supposedly law-abiding Mijares was once in a previous life had blood on his hands, a lawbreaker in service of a government machinery dedicated to the repression of his ancestral country. The 1970 West Point graduate who had efficiently led student dissidents to their grisly deaths was left clueless in his search for justice to the murdered young Harana, who at 21 years of age, could have been one of Mijares’ victims. The man whose profession was to ferret out truth by whatever means necessary was himself a product of an institution known for dishonesty and corruption. Why, he even physically evicts a documentary filmmaker from the scene of another crime, a rape-murder of two women as if filming the gumshoe was an act of judgement! He fondles the late Harana’s gun with his bare hands, instead of wearing rubber gloves when he visits the last known hangout of the victim, violating the SOP American cops observe when conducting an investigation.
The story of the global Filipino diaspora is one of hard work, struggle, loneliness in an alien land as well as of exploitation and the debasement of the human spirit. And in Diaz’s script, Hanzel Harana was set up as the perfect victim. He arrives in the Promised Land without the practical skills needed to survive in his new environment. His grandfather was aghast to learn that he could not use a computer nor take an interest in the written word, his own roots and current events. The young Harana, lacking the integral foundation that family, school and church traditionally provide, is a blank slate waiting for authority figures of various stripes to write on his persona. In effect, Harana becomes a metaphor of the Philippine historical experience: a country with no roots and distinctive cultural identity willingly falls prey to an alien religion foisted by Spain, the hedonistic images propagated by the culture of Hollywood, and the false security and illusionary prosperity of the Marcos years. With nothing to fall back on, Hanzel Harana could only express himself in resentment and ultimately, in the language of violence symbolized by his act of acquiring a pistol.
In the final analysis, ‘Batang West Side’ is more than a murder whodunit. It develops ultimately into an indictment of everything wrong with the national psyche still traumatized by its’ experience w/ its’ tortured past. Particularly troubling in the Philippine collective consciousness is the individual tendency to join the herd mentality as an antidote to living in isolation and fear in a cruel world. The young Harana’s quest for emotional security in the company of young men of dubious character leads him, lemming-like, not towards his salvation but extinction. It is interesting to note that in a certain scene, the con artist Bartolo, by his lonesome and zonked out on liquor, was viewing a videotape of a movie imported from the Philippines, which was Mike de Leon’s 1981 classic ‘Batch ’81’ that examined young Filipino university students’ obsession w/ joining fraternities at the price of physical and mental abuse. The supposed Batang West Side whose name is Harana, means ‘song’ in the Filipino language, and ‘Batang West Side’ is Diaz’s love song to that damaged entity called Philippine cinema. By making what was considered the longest movie in the history of Philippine film, Diaz has said that in the act of making of the film, he would help rescue it from the bondage of crass commercialism and cheap gimmickry the art has fallen in the wake of Hollywood’s total stranglehold and the effects of illicit piracy undercutting profits made at the box office. ‘Batang West Side’ would be remembered for years to come as a Filipino film classic for its unflinching effort in exploring the Filipino heart of darkness beneath that ostensibly calm and placid surface.