Land of the dead
Lav Diaz’s Kagadanan sa banwaan ning mga Engkanto (Death in the Land of Encantos, 2007) might be the possible result if you took Spike Lee’s 2006 documentary When the Levees Broke, recast it in Andrei Tarkovsky mode, stretched it to Bela Tarr length, added a dash of Abbas Kiarostami-like meta-cinema, sprinkled it with a few ideas from Mario O’Hara, and set it in the Bicol region. Possible, though I wonder if said bastard offspring will be anywhere near as strange as this.
It’s ostensibly the story of one Benjamin Agusan (‘Roeder’ in the film’s credits, full name ‘Roeder Camanag’), a famed poet gone into some kind of self-imposed exile in Kaluga, a small town southwest of Moscow (Lav calls it an inside joke on behalf of his father, who was fascinated by Russia; the country’s literature and sensibility has seeped into many of his previous films (particularly Serafin Geronimo: Kriminal ng Baryo Concepcion (Serafin Geronimo: Criminal of Barrio Concepcion, 1998), his version of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment)). He returns home to the vacation resort of Padang, near Legazpi City, in the wake of the devastation wreaked by Typhoon Reming (international name ‘Durian’)–a devastation made worse by typhoon-triggered lahar mudslides from nearby Mayon Volcano, burying homes and families alike (Padang was the worse-hit of the towns). He meets his friends Teodoro (Perry Dizon) and Catalina (Angeli Bayani), and is haunted by memories of former loves–Svita, a Russian beauty; Amalia (Sophia Aves), his longtime companion in Padang; his dead father, mother, sister.
It’s an often seemingly shapeless, meandering tapestry, but Diaz is working on a vast canvas, five hundred and forty minutes long (his previous film Heremias Book One: The Legend of the Lizard Princess (2006) was about the same length; his Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (Evolution of a Filipino Family, 2004) eleven hours long). Front and center on that canvas is Benjamin, the latest incarnation of one of Diaz’s favorite characters, the restless wanderer–early examples included kidnapper-fugitive Serafin Geronimo (Raymond Bagatsing) and cuckolded husband Lauro (Joel Torre) in Hubad sa Ilalim ng Buwan (Naked Under the Moon, 1999). Murder victim Hanzel Harana (Yul Servo) was a younger version seeking a family to belong to in Batang West Side (West Side Avenue, 2001); turns out Detective Juan Mijares (Joel Torre), the police officer investigating Hanzel’s death, was a similarly lost soul. Reynaldo was an inscrutable figure entering and walking away from the lives of various families in Ebolusyon; the eponymous character in Heremias traveled in his oxcart full of handicrafts–alone, restless, almost entirely speechless, yet somehow able to give the impression that he was searching for something.
Benjamin, though, unlike Reynaldo or Heremias is a poet as well as a wanderer. With Encantos Diaz has discarded the taciturn probinsyano (hick provincial) protagonist for the more loquacious small-town artist, the creative intellectual who chooses to live outside of Manila while practicing his craft. Which is something of a relief–the Diaz character is prone to long periods of contemplation and in an eleven or nine hour film (such as Heremias, Ebolusyon, and this), where they have little else to say between the long bouts of silence, it can sometimes make for difficult viewing. This time we have not one but three verbose philosophers, able and willing to indulge in the one sport in which Filipinos demonstrate a natural, world-class talent: the freewheeling discourse. Hamin (short for Benjamin), Teodoro, and Catalina gaze at the blasted landscape and hold forth on various subjects–love, art, death, God, the social and political condition of the Philippines, the difference between Filipinos and Russians, mosquitoes; even science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick and horror filmmaker David Cronenberg merit a quick mention. Diaz supplies all the dialogue, presumably; from personal experience I know him to be a world-class raconteur, able to talk to the wee hours of the morning on any subject imaginable. His extemporaneous monologue on pre-colonial Filipino sex in John Torres’ Todo Todo Teros (2006) was a both illuminating and hilarious highlight of that film; here the skill provides enough meat to sustain the soul during our long journey through the film’s narrative.
It helps that the film is full of poetry. Possibly taking a page from Mario O’Hara’s masterpiece Pangarap ng Puso (Demons, 2000), where poetry and monsters haunted the imaginations of the protagonists, Diaz inserts verses here, there, and they function as lyrical commentary on and response to the film’s themes and storyline (he had put poetry to memorable use once before, when Joel Lamangan gave an evocative reading of one of Diaz’s pieces in Hesus Rebolusyunaryo (Jesus the Revolutionary, 2002)). Diaz at one point even has a kapre (a Filipino ogre) stalking his forest–you could almost imagine the creature wandering off from O’Hara’s set and finding its way to Padang.
Sometimes the meandering nature of the discussions makes for surprising turns, creates startling connections. The three friends sitting in front of a lamp in utter darkness (it’s night, and there’s a brownout) talk about mosquitoes, how sliced raw onions sometimes drive them off, sometimes don’t. Talk moves on to patterns in insect behavior, and Hamin tells of how writers and filmmakers seize on these patterns to tell postmodern stories of bizarre human activity (hence the mention of Dick, Cronenberg, and for good measure poet Ted Hughes). Catalina speaks out against such unfeeling fiction; she prefers to dwell in emotion and mystery. Talk shifts on that word to the mysteries of the rosary, and how the Philippines seem to be mired in what rosary holders call a Sorrowful Mystery (the Death and Crucifixion stage, to be exact). Catalina’s reply to this is a vow to tell the truth the best she can, through her art; Hamin asks (rather sardonically): is she willing to die for her art? Catalina sits and stares, not answering; the talk, having moved from evening dark to practical considerations to literary and cinematic themes, rose into a broad philosophical debate that peaked with a declaration of redemptive action, then with the mention of the ultimate darkness plunges back into the surrounding gloom (which, of course, is but a reminder of the larger gloom).
Catalina often acts as foil, if not actual opponent, to Hamin’s fatalism, her maternal and sexual life force countering his sense of despair. Against his insect behavior she responds with emotion and mystery; against his neglect of Amalia (who loyally cleaned and maintained his studio while he was in Russia, even insisted on speaking of him only in glowing terms) Catalina mischievously suggests that she’ll mount an exhibit in tribute to the woman, displaying sculptures of Amalia’s body parts, even private parts. There’s sarcasm in Catalina’s suggestion, but also something affirming: Amalia is gone, and this is a way of remembering her, keeping some portion of her vital, alive.
Against Mayon Catalina is all practical defiance; she acknowledges the volcano’s beauty (it’s considered the most perfect cone in the world), the same time she condemns the mountain for killing thousands of people over the years–is perhaps poised to kill thousands more (as Hamin notes, only one-fourth of the volcanic mud has been expended; the other three-fourths sits there, waiting for the next powerful typhoon). Knowledge of all that sludge waiting to bury her doesn’t faze Catalina one bit; she just goes on working, taking mud from the volcano’s slopes and using it for her sculptures, transforming it, taking material for potential death and giving it new life.
But the film’s title speaks of death, not life; despite all of Catalina’s (and Teodoro’s, and Hamin’s) artistic and creative powers, they can’t stop Mount Mayon, or Typhoon Reming, or the Philippine government’s more oppressive policies towards leftists (at one point it’s mentioned that over 800 unarmed political activists have been killed since President Macapagal-Arroyo took power, a good portion of them Bicolanos). On a trip to Manila to find out what had happened to his mother (he knew she had died in a mental hospital, but didn’t know the exact circumstances), Hamin again meets one of the paramilitary officers that had interrogated him, irrevocably changing his life (or so it seems).
As director Diaz shows more confidence in the black-and-white digital medium than he’s ever shown before. He managed with a limited variety of lighting in Ebolusyon; in Heremias he learned to create more expressive lighting schemes, sometimes even in inclement weather (weather he often created himself, using a water truck and fire hose). In this film he has sunlight waxing and waning as Catalina and Hamin talk in her outdoor studio (the light rhyming with the waning and waxing of the discussion); he has the three friends stage an entire debate (the aforementioned insect behavior patterns vs. emotion and mystery controversy) in the light of a single lamp; in Manila he has the camera sit low, like a political prisoner squatting on the floor, while it watches Hamin and his former torturer (their silhouettes vivid against the harsh Manila sunlight) talk about their past, present, future.
The last scene demonstrates an interesting series of directorial choices–why doesn’t Diaz give us a clear look at Hamin’s tormentor? Why does he allow the officer to play the role so melodramatically, like a low-budget action-movie villain? Was the conversation the event that triggered Hamin’s suicidal downward spiral, or was it yet another symptom–a decisive one–of said spiral? Did Hamin imagine the whole encounter, this being his way of putting the blame on someone, his way of evading feelings of anger and grief and guilt at the apparent neglectful death of his mother?
The mother’s departure from their home is a defining event in Hamin’s life, and Diaz treats it as such with his camerawork. In a single shot the camera follows Hamin from behind as he walks up to a girl and boy playing among the trees, and we recognize the young Hamin playing with his sister Teresa; the man walks to the right, the camera following, till he’s facing his childhood home. Suddenly a doctor in white coat emerges from the left of the house, pulling his mother along, walking past him. Hamin walks to the left, the camera panning to follow, just in time to catch both doctor and mother disappearing into the forest, then turns to look back at the home his mother left behind. This is Diaz’s second foray into Jose Rizal territory, into the iconographic imagery of Rizal’s famed novel Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not), his way in particular of evoking the figure of Sisa, the mother turned madwoman by the disappearance of her children and the tyranny of an unjust government. Diaz made this journey once before, with the story of Reynaldo’s mother in Ebolusyon; fellow Filipino filmmakers Mario O’Hara, Lino Brocka, and Gerardo de Leon made the journey before him with their respective films (O’Hara’s great Sisa (1998); Brocka’s influential Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Were Judged But Found Wanting, 1974); De Leon’s seminal Sisa and definitive Noli Me Tangere (1951 and 1961, respectively)). But where O’Hara, Brocka and de Leon’s various Sisas were all helpless hysterics, singing folk songs when they weren’t moaning after their missing children, Diaz’s is the quieter kind, somehow kin to his gallery of straying loners (you could say mother infected son with her wanderlust). She goes on to meander in and out of her son’s consciousness, leading him to his inevitable fate.
Beyond all this, though–beyond the melodrama and dialogue–is Diaz’s apparent relationship with the Bicolano landscape. In Ebolusyon and Heremias he seemed to disagree with the landscape, struggle against it, carefully angle his camera to capture the bleakest, least flattering aspect of an undeniably lush vista. Returning to the same region with Encantos (you might say the film is a sequel to the first two) the struggle has been resolved; Diaz’s camera gazes at the treeless, houseless, blasted landscape with a sense of propriety, almost a sense of fulfillment. It’s as if Diaz has discovered that the desolation left in the wake of Reming (with Mayon collaborating) is the perfect visual metaphor for the political and spiritual wasteland he feels was left in the wake of Philippine society (with the present administration governing) in its downward spiral. This, Diaz seems to be saying to us, is the Philippines, nor are we out of it. One of the best–and most important–films to come out this year.