“Great” is an adjective that is usually reserved for works of considerable degree and power, of immense import and significance. To the very few in the world who are open-minded enough to have braved sitting through Lav Diaz’s latest nine-hour opus, the term “great” would be the proper and popular adjective to describe the film. I cannot disagree, Kagadanan Sa Banwaan Ning Mga Engkanto (Death in the Land of Encantos) is simply one great film, arguably the greatest film of 2007. Allow me to complicate things further, Kagadanan is not merely a great film, it is possibly one of the greatest films about love ever made. The love that subtly illuminates Diaz’s black and white visual aesthetics over acres of land ravaged by the typhoon Reming (internationally referred to as Durian, the strongest typhoon to have ever hit the Bicol region, wiping out entire families and towns) is expansive. The love here is utterly romantic, blatantly destructive, hypnotically alluring, and fascinatingly sincere.
Kagadanan takes its cue from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novels (like One Hundred Years of Solitude or Love in the Time of Cholera), where the men and women are all hopelessly romantic scavengers, traversing the Latin American wasteland of fractured colonial and political influences with gentle caresses of native magic and coincidences. Diaz evokes Garcia Marquez by draping the return of Bicolano poet Benjamin Agusan Jr. (played by theater actor Roeder Camanag), fondly referred to by his friends as Hamin, to his now desolate home town with the same overbearing atmosphere of a country completely collapsing from the burden of colonial influence and present political inutility. Diaz furthers this contemplation with a subplot involving memories of Hamin’s mother (Gemma Cuenca), suffering supposedly from insanity caused by her romantic affair with an earth spirit castled in a mound of soil in their farmland. Insanity becomes a generational ill as Hamin himself is slowly degenerating into a rabid paranoid, consumed by a similar doomed love affair. All the other characters in Kagadanan suffer a similar fate, of being swallowed completely by an indefatigable obsession, an incurable enchantment of the land that Diaz pictures as insufferably beautiful yet compulsively treacherous. This is where Diaz tops Garcia Marquez. Diaz’s magic realism is more familiar, more agonizing, more a product of a collective national experience than a singular imaginative mind.
Hamin meets up with his friends, Teodoro (Perry Dizon), another poet who has retired to become a fisherman, and Catalina (Angeli Bayani), sculptor of rocks spewed by Mt. Mayon and Hamin’s former flame and mother of his kid. The three would indulge in prolonged conversations about neverendingly evolving topics (an evening conversation between the three friends would begin with a question about the severe blackout evolves into a complaint about kerosene lamps which evolves into a discussion on insects and their intriguing behavioral patterns which then evolves into musings about the government, about art, about passion and mysteries) over bottles of beer. These conversations distinguish the characters. Hamin is the romantic intellectual, experienced with the ways of the world (having been to Europe and Russia), yet secretive and guarded. Teodoro, on the other hand, has the temperament of a simple provincial laborer, unflinchingly loyal and beholden to his more successful friends (upon first sight of Hamin, he devotes a persuasive recital of a fondly remembered poem, lovingly and graciously delivered), yet his restraint is his wisdom. Catalina has a worldly demeanor which shrouds her maternal inclinations to both her friends. She is supposedly the most level-headed of the three, but she is fueled by emotions. Her art, carving from volcanic boulders valuable pieces, is a derivative of her passionate hatred for Mt. Mayon.
Although the friends are very close, there’s an indescribable tension that overpowers their bonds. Between Hamin and Teodoro lies an uncomfortable merging of respect, disdain, and the acknowledgment that both of them have something the other will never have (Hamin’s experiences abroad and acclaim, and Teodoro’s comfort and stability). Hamin and Catalina share a son and a past romantic relationship, yet both of them are not in a position to give in to the simple comforts Teodoro has retired to. Both of them are fervent artists and activists who are unable and probably will never be able to descend to lowly concerns of plebeian livelihood and family. Sacrifice, that is the affliction that pervades the nine-hour picture. It is an affliction that resembles an unhealthy obsession, an interval of insanity, essentially leading to death.
Amalia (Sophia Aves), Hamin’s lover who he abandoned when he left for Russia, is peacefully sleeping naked. Hamin’s voice-over is heard “You’re the most beautiful” as Diaz’s camera lingers aggressively on every exposed area of Amalia’s body. There’s a faint echo of despair in Hamin’s voice, as if he’s trapped in a moment where he is deprived of fully enjoying the beauty that he is beholden to, unable to touch and embrace. In another similar scene, Svita, Hamin’s lover while he was stationed in Russia, is peacefully sleeping naked. Again, Hamin’s voice is heard declaring that Svita is “the most beautiful” with the same faint echo of despair while the camera peers into every exposed area of her body. These scenes (I’d think of them as vivid dream sequences that are laced with erotic motivations rather than memories of events that ensued) are always preceded or followed by visual meditations of the ruined land, of the majestic and perfectly coned Mt. Mayon and its terrible power, hinting of the indispensable connection between the love for a beautiful woman that has been left or has left, and the love for this beautiful yet wretched country that is slowly turning into a literal hell.
Within the nine-hour duration of Kagadanan are several filmed interviews (with Diaz doing the interviewing himself in a mannered and very journalistic method, eliciting answers and stories of considerable power and drama) of the survivors of the typhoon Reming. Depicted are the unthinkable horrors that ensued: of mothers persisting to dig up the bodies of their families, of entire towns being submerged in mixtures of water and volcanic mud, of both past and future livelihoods lost in a short period of time. More harrowing are the different reactions of the victims: an old woman suddenly wails when she is reminded of her uncertain future, a group of friends nonchalantly discuss friends who were buried underneath the rubble, a woman correlates the tragedy with the residents’ worsening sinfulness. Diaz then plays around with form when he also interviews the three main characters as similar victims of the typhoon’s catastrophe. The interviewer all of a sudden becomes part of the film, engaging in conversations and arguments with Hamin, Catalina and Teodoro. Diaz pierces the veil that divides fiction and documentary (the film got a special mention in Venice in the documentary section of the Horizons sidebar of the film festival), yet despite the use of such device, no intention of mockery or gimmickry is perceived. Instead, the blurred lines become drastic ruminations of the blatant absurdity of the very real situation: of an entire population wiped out and forced to evacuate, of a nation and government that simply does not care.
Kagadanan is possibly Diaz’s most personal film. Unlike in Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (Evolution of a Filipino Family, 2001) or Heremias (2006) where static long takes have become the comforting norm of Diaz’s visual aesthetics, Kagadanan is more dynamic. While the contemplative long takes are still present, Diaz frequently engages in hand held shots especially in the scenes that are supposedly from the point of view of Hamin, like the first scene where we become accustomed in the muddied desolation caused by the typhoon, the several scenes wherein Hamin reminisces on his childhood, and the dream sequences with Amalia and Svita. The peculiar thing about this change in Diaz’s aesthetics is that from mere observer in Ebolusyon and Heremias, he now partakes a more involved role, becoming Hamin if necessary (this is why Hamin’s gaze on the female form is so complex (lustful, eager, curious and longing), because Diaz himself becomes Hamin). The evening banters and the philosophical musings are all Diaz’s; a conversation with the director would feel like the humble discussions between Hamin, Catalina and Teodoro (only in that case, it’s all Diaz in different personas doing the talking). The poems made and recited by both Hamin and Teodoro are also in reality, Diaz’s.
Diaz is a very generous artist, too generous perhaps. Unfortunately, the naked sincerity and generosity in Diaz’s filmmaking are often mistaken for self-indulgence, mostly because of his film’s ungodly lengths. The sacrifices he has made for the love of his art is unsurpassed by any Filipino filmmaker, living or dead. The reason why the heartaches, the unbridled longings, the closeted insecurities, the disregarded relationships, the incomparable dedication for art and activism, the emotional and physical desolation are so palpable in Kagadanan is because they were cultivated not from manufactured imagination but through collected experiences.
“Ang mamatay ng dahil sa iyo” (translated as “To die for you”), from the Philippine national anthem sung with a rough and insulting baritone by a mysterious military officer (played with cartoonish viciousness by Soliman Cruz) while torturing Hamin, are the last words heard in the film before the images abruptly turn to black and the end credits start appearing. The way the words were sung connotes a harsh taunting, probably from the government forces to those whose activism is similar to Hamin’s (and this part is rooted from a valid concern by most artists and journalists whose works are either censored because of its political messages or they themselves are mysteriously executed). The words also candidly express the affliction of sacrifice that has become the norm in such manner of living Diaz’s characters and perhaps Diaz himself live. There can be no mistress for one’s unmitigated love for the land (or art) despite its frequent treacherous ways, which is why Hamin can never fulfill the desires of consummating love with his women (Amalia, whom he left; Svita, who left him; and Catalina, who can never arouse him again), or inhabiting the role of father to his estranged son in Mindanao, or to give aid to his family members who all died in fits of insanity before him. That in itself is a maddening preoccupation, and the logical although painful recourse is to escape by consummating one’s mortality. In this ravaged land of both magic and extreme reality, death is a cheap comfort.