Batang West Side (West Side Avenue) represents a turning point in Lav Diaz’s career. Unrestricted by the demands of commercial filmmaking, Diaz was able to establish himself as an uncompromising and relentless filmmaker. He populates the film’s visuals with frequent motionless and staggered shots of fractured souls framed against the desolate and artificial landscapes of New Jersey, and rare close-ups (and when Diaz does indulge in a close-up in the latter part of the film, particularly of Joel Torre as snowflakes settle and melt on his sorrowful face, the effect is utterly tremendous). Shot by cinematographer Miguel Fabie III utilizing whatever light is available over a period of eight months in New Jersey, Batang West Side looks absolutely mesmerizing. The film is elegant in its visual austerity, something that has since then defined Diaz’s unique brand of aesthetics, which is always reflective of the crises that his characters seek salvation from. From the sleepy streetlamp-lit alleyways of Batang West Side’s foreign cityscape that enunciate the internal turmoils of the troubled immigrants that populate them, Diaz will similarly afflict the endless roads of the Philippine countryside, the farmlands and mines, the typhoon-ravaged towns with the vast emotional weight of his embattled characters.
It’s length of five hours is both famous and justified. Of course, compared to Diaz’s later features like Ebolusyong ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (Evolution of a Filipino Family, 2004), Heremias (2006), Kagadanan sa Banwaan Ning Mga Engkanto (Death in Land of Encantos, 2007) and Melancholia (2008) whose running times range from nine to eleven hours, Batang West Side is very short. Diaz’s editing is pitch perfect with scenes that extend to several minutes precisely to immerse the audience into the film’s disparate reality. The prolonged moments, mostly draped with ominous silence and staticity, invite arduous contemplation on the matters tackled head-on by Diaz. Joey Ayala’s sparingly used score has a haunting effect. His melodies are subtle reminders of the country is totally invisible in the film but perpetually lingering.
Torre plays Juan Mijares, an investigator who is tasked to solve the murder of Hanzel Harana (Yul Servo) in West Side Avenue. The investigation serves as mere backdrop. As Mijares delves deeper into Harana’s murder, the film further dissolves into a meditation of the ills that burdens the Filipino. Harana dies a defeated youth, plucked from the Philippines by his mother supposedly to rescue him from the motherland’s contagious deterioration only to be lured into the shabu (or crystal meth, the drug of choice, cheap and readily available, of the impoverished Filipino youth) trade and the nightly and often violent escapades of the street gangs of New Jersey.
The participants in Harana’s life and death in New Jersey are similarly situated. Lolita (Gloria Diaz), Harana’s mother, in order to support her family in the Philippines, travels to the United States to marry a wealthy old man, who has been left physically incapacitated by age and disease. Her husband’s mansion becomes stage to a Bergmanesque chamber drama, where Lolita is held captive both by her marital affiliation with her useless husband and her asphyxiating love affair with the Filipino helper (Arthur Acuña). As her reason for leaving the Philippines and entering into a loveless marriage was rendered moot by her son’s eventual reversal of ideals and demise, her story warps into an existential void where her sacrifice and suffering become pointless. Fundamentally involved are Harana’s grandfather, Abdon (Ruben Pizon), and girlfriend, Dolores (Priscilla Almeda), who offer faint glints of hope to Harana’s misdirected youth. Their inevitable failure further emphasizes the painful futility of change in a culture that is headstrong with regards to its vices although stubbornly persistent in its struggle for salvation.
Diaz drifts further from the investigation, as Mijares’ personal conflicts become more apparent. As the investigation of Harana’s murder mutates into the indictment of the Filipino psyche, his initial recurring dreams of his mother (Angel Aquino) graduate into violent nightmares, torturing him to seek redemption from the sins repressed in his self-proclaimed exile to America. Redemption arrives by the exposition of truth through an act of cinema, represented by a documentary filmmaker recording Mijares’ confessions. For Diaz, cinema is not and should not merely be a means for escapism, it is also redemptive in its search for truth.
Through the film, Diaz asks a pressing question, “what has become of the Filipino?” His answer is as bleak as the atmosphere he deftly paints. The Filipino, wherever he may be, whatever he has become, is still a Filipino. The Philippine diaspora, caused by the earnest search for greener pastures, is not the panacea that will cure what aches the Philippine psyche. It is merely a temporary displacement, since the blood, the vices, and the virtues, that bind the Filipino people as dictated by its culture and history is as inescapable as the sins that individually haunt them.
More than being a turning point in Diaz’s career as artist, Batang West Side also represents one of the most important junctures in Philippine Cinema, directly or indirectly heralding a new wave of filmmakers (the list includes Raya Martin, John Torres, Khavn de la Cruz) who have have pierced and continue to pierce the veil of mainstream commercial cinematographic entertainment by making films that are fueled with personal aches and visions instead of profit-centered intentions. Although there have been filmmakers like Kidlat Tahimik (Mababangong Bangungot (Perfumed Nightmares, 1977), Turumba (1981)), Raymond Red (Bayani (Heroes, 1992), Anino (Shadows, 2000)), and animator Roxlee whose works have opened the floodgates long before Diaz’s five-hour masterpiece, it is the epic scope, the undaunted ambition, and the artistic integrity of Batang West Side that beacons the brave and independent spirit that relentlessly ignites this new generation of Filipino filmmakers.