Lav Diaz’s vision of our nation’s near-future is not very different from how it is presently. The only differences are that streets and alleys are deserted at night, checkpoints where erring citizens are lined up to sing the National Anthem (snatched by Diaz from memories of his childhood) are placed instead. Despite that, literature and art flourishes amidst fascist asphyxiation. The nation has experienced similar circumstances under the Marcos regime, and faint but resounding reminders under the present regime. This is Diaz’s science fiction, which in turn is a wry observation of the state of the Philippine nation. There is not a spark of progress in display asManila in 2011 looks very much like Manila in 1990, made more melancholic by the uncomfortable stillness under the military junta. Instead, an atmosphere of paranoia pervades the near-noxious air.
General Racellos (Lawrence Espinosa) controls the land through the television and the radio. Announcements and bits of propaganda are disseminated with mechanical certainty; the true artists are working underground or fighting for freedom. Hesus (a quietly intense Mark Anthony Fernandez) is the film’s hero — he’s a poet, a gunfighter, a leader of the masses. His burden is an enveloping feeling of guilt, from killing his comrades as ordered by the mysterious Miguel Reynante (Ronnie Lazaro) — their revolutionary unit’s methods seem as fascist as the government’s.
Hesus’ redemption is owed not to his movement, but to his nation. His poem, read by Col. Simon (perfectly interpreted by Joel Lamangan) while he’s in a coma, discusses the joyful simplicities of life as disrupted by that certain corruption that has killed the nation; it is sorrowful and powerful the way the poem weaves the nation with spoken images of the family. Throughout the film, Hesus travels, hunted by government troops, directionless. We witness his nightmare-like dreams — memories from his childhood in Bicol, fantasies of Hilda (Donita Rose), miraculously cured of her blindness. That’s his utopia, bright and green as opposed to the grey and drab shadowy exteriors of Manila.
Diaz’s aesthetics is pitch-perfect. Slow to the point of stubbornness, yet it’s never dull. He knows when to cut at the right time; Diaz won’t cease to prolong a scene until he is satisfied that the emotions, the pain are succinctly conveyed. When Hesus kills all his comrades, Diaz doesn’t cut at the moment the last comrade is shot death. Instead, he lingers to show Hesus wallowing with self-doubt and guilt inflicted by the massacre.
Diaz also shows an adept sense of humor. Col. Simon waits for Hesus to wake up from his coma; Lamangan (brilliant, brilliant thespian) walks around, plays Hesus’ music, and prances to the rhythm of the music, before reading to him his poem. Overly extended, the dead pan humor breathes diversion (although, not at all distracting) to Diaz’s straightforward intentions.
The numerous action scenes (probably put to placate Lily Monteverde, the film’s producer) are coherently directed (there’s strategy in the action; none of the illogical and badly conceived shoot-outs that are typical to Filipino action films). There’s a meticulous concern for the mechanics of the action sequences — the shadows of the dimly lit corridors, corners and wide spaces become invitations to danger. It’s refreshing to finally watch a smartly directed action film.
Hesus Rebolusyonaryo was made from a measly few millions and was expected to make profit. It failed miserably in the box office (notwithstanding the presence of Fernandez and Rose, all bankable actors) and closed after a couple of days from its opening (films usually would last a week before being replaced). That’s the sad fate of this nation; that when finally, an intelligent and homegrown science fiction is released, Filipinos opt to march in zombie-like fashion to the latest Hollywood extravaganza. Talk about fascism in cinema.