A curiously oblique film that builds almost imperceptibly, Lav Diaz’s five-hour “Batang West Side” — at once deadly serious and howlingly absurd — is a masterpiece. Mesmerizing from first frame to last, this Filipino detective story follows Jersey City cop Juan Mijares (Joel Torre) as he pieces together the events leading to the death of Hanzel Harana (Yul Servo), a young Filipino found shot in the head on West Side Avenue. As in classic detective stories from “Oedipus Rex” to “Kiss Me Deadly,” the search for truth illuminates all kinds of dark corners and ultimately rebounds on the searcher. Beneath its apparent haphazardness, Diaz has balanced pic so carefully that cutting doesn’t seem like a good option, and it’s doubtful a shorter running time would render it more commercial anyway. Although not your usual cineplex fodder, pic’s mastery and “unnatural” length make it a standout on the fest circuit (it has already garnered a best film award at Singapore). With the right handling and critical support, its length could play in its favor in upscale urban markets.
Structured as a series of interviews with witnesses, friends, relatives and suspects, and interspersed with flashbacks triggered by their testimony, the more “Batang” delves into what happened to the victim after his arrival in the States two years earlier, the less he comes into focus. As recounted by his mother, Lolita (Gloria Diaz), his grandfather (Rubem Tizon) and his girlfriend (Priscilla Almeda), Hanzel’s life in snowbound New Jersey (the wintry cityscape providing the only unbroken constant in this fragmented saga) begins to reflect a bleak vision of Filipino destiny abroad.
Lolita’s palatial estate, Hanzel’s first stopover, boasts a setup straight out of James M. Cain. Between his mother’s abusive lover, a marvel of macho swagger, and her paralyzed new Anglo hubby, whose too-conscious eyes are the only controlled part of his floppy body, Lolita seems to have constructed the perfect expiation for the sin of selling her soul to support her children.
Helmer Diaz’s austere geometrical compositions make the most of every cold surface, from the exquisite frieze of a rose window to the sweeping curve of gleaming wooden banister, to frame the doomed denizens of this designer prison.
In contrast, the grandfather’s house is a collection of warmly lit enclaves awash in middle-class comfort, a uniquely Filipino variation on a Norman Rockwell painting. Under his granddad’s stern but kindly tutelage, Hanzel becomes a model student, reading, fishing and writing home to his brothers and sisters on his new computer. But the rewards of virtue are slow in coming and, alienated, homesick and despairing of not being able to earn money fast enough to save his family, Hanzel takes to hanging out with the Filipino homeboys, drinking too much and using and finally dealing Shabu, a particularly corrosive form of crystal meth and the Filipino drug of choice.
But, it is the chain-smoking cop Mijares, who dominates “Batang.” Mijares even provides the voiceover for the opening autobiographical monologue about the soon-to-be deceased Hanzel. Lensed in long takes, the film maintains an evocative distance, which by extension reads as Mijares’ investigative regard. His sun-drenched overexposed black-and-white dreams of his mother provide the film’s only link to images of the Philippines, though he — and his mother — have been gone from the Philippines for many years.
Mijares also directs the shift in interest away from Hanzel toward those whose lives he intersected: Lolita frantically drags her lover’s dog’s trash bag-wrapped corpse across the kitchen floor when her attempt to poison its master backfires; an ex-schoolteacher drug dealer, lost in dreams of Shabu-fueled cultural revolution and Filipino hegemony, croons love songs to an empty Karaoke bar.
At the same time, Mijares begins to obsess on Hanzel’s murder in more disquieting ways. Cut off from wife and family and about to pull the plug on his mother (who’s been on hospital life support for years), Mijares imagines he killed Hanzel. Later, he sees himself savagely pistol-whipping Hanzel to death in an orgy of bloodlust, jumping up and down in a crazed dance before finishing him off with two quick pops to the head.
Mijares abandons the investigation and begins to drift. Stories of other expatriate Filipinos creep in from left field and the film seems about to fall apart when, by a sudden and magisterial twist, the detours lead back to the core of the film.
Lensing — an astounding 80% of which used available light — as well as set design and music are all magnificent. It seems impossible to believe that this beautifully controlled and executed film was shot in two months and brought in at under 80 million pesos ($200,000).