“Batang West Side” is not your usual crime thriller or Filipino melodrama.
There are no car chases or violent shoot-outs; no tearful confrontations or contests as to who can throw the loudest hysterical fit. The film feels and looks like no other Filipino film I’ve ever seen yet in many ways is unmistakably, profoundly Filipino.
It’s the story of Hanzel Harana (Yul Servo), a Filipino immigrant freshly arrived in the United States, his freshly killed body lying on the concrete sidewalk that runs the length of West Side Avenue, Jersey City. The rest of the film follows Officer Juan Mijarez (Joel Torre), a Filipino police detective, as he investigates Hanzel’s murder. Along the way we come to know some of the people at the center or periphery of Hanzel’s life–Lolita, his mother, (Gloria Diaz); Dolores, his girlfriend (Priscilla Almeda); Lolo Abdon, his grandfather (Ruben Pizon); Bartolo, his mother’s lover (Art Acuna). Each of them serves as inspiration or impediment to Hanzel, as either source of conflict, comfort, or comic relief (the film is a triumph of ensemble acting, and both Gloria Diaz and Priscilla Almeda–a well-known soft-core porn actress–are acting revelations). Each of them, in his or her way, represents either Hanzel’s salvation or damnation–sometimes both, at the same time. Beyond that, Diaz gives us an overview of the Filipino-American community, both its functional and dysfunctional members–incidentally exploding the myth of the Filipino-American as a hardworking, overachieving model citizen.
Not every Filipino is a conservative, law-abiding lamb, Diaz effectively demonstrates, as he captures the amorality of the community’s disaffected younger generation. Diaz also reveals one of the communities’ dirtiest secrets–“shabu,” or crystal meth, apparently a Filipino product exported to the United States, and one quickly coming into popular use among Filipino youths.
Beyond even that, Diaz questions the ultimate direction the Filipino people have taken. Is overseas immigration the cure-all solution everyone thinks it is? Is the family still the central social unit in Philippine society? What hope is there for the Filipino youth–or is there hope of any kind left? Hard questions, even unpopular questions, to ask. Diaz asks them quietly, unflinchingly, with little pretension or fuss, and for this–for Diaz’s courage in asking and actually expecting an answer–the film is of some importance and worth. For the immense sadness that occupies the center of the film, however–for the sense Diaz gives us of mourning the death of a single Filipino (and, implicitly, mourning the death of the Filipino heart and spirit)–for this, I think, the film is indispensable viewing.
Oh, there are flaws, serious ones. The relationship between Hanzel and his grandfather, one-time strangers now close friends, has been seriously truncated–you feel they’ve hardly met before they become bosom buddies–and an episode where Hanzel disappears and as mysteriously reappears happens so quickly you wonder if he had ever left. The emotional sweep and complexity of the film as it is is impressive, but you feel it could be more, much more, if it were allowed its proper length. I caught glimpses of what Diaz wanted to say in the three-hour version of “Batang West Side” and it was impressive; I think we need to see the five-hour version for the full impact.