The picture that Lav Diaz paints of an island decades after a mining company that brought to the island temporary prosperity left its shores is one draped in astounding bleakness and melancholy. As Martha (Lois Goff), the daughter of the Canadian CEO of the mining company, returns to the island she regards as her home, as according to her, she was practically born and raised there and that its residents are essentially her second family, she brings with her reawakened memories of a former abundance that is all replaced by penury and idleness. The past becomes an unhealthy preoccupation as the villagers repay her fondness with shame, indifference, and bad intentions, with three of the most affected of the mine’s unrepentant beneficiaries, Mang Ferding (Dante Perez), former head of security of the mine, Willy (Willy Fernandez), Martha’s childhood friend who now sells salt bread for a living, and another one of the mine’s former employees (Joel Ferrer) whose yearly ritual of having himself nailed to the cross is for the return of his wife, conspire to kidnap her for a hefty ransom.
The village is deceptively quaint. The villagers go about their daily chores and vices, idly gallivanting or selling their wares during the day and drowning their dilemmas with alcohol at night. There is a sheen of normalcy, one that is ready to give way to madness should it be disturbed. It is this quaintness, this suspicious quietude, that makes Martha’s visit a particularly awkward one, one that is birthed from good intentions but due to the intertwining of communal and personal histories, circumstances, and a hopeless longing for a distant prosperous past, can only result in bringing out the worst from humanity.
Diaz’s Walang Alaala ang mga Paru-Paro (Butterflies Have No Memories), a short film commissioned by the Jeonju International Film Festival for the tenth edition of its annual digital project, while a mere fraction of the director’s famously long films in terms of running time, is equally potent in its depiction of fractured souls struggling within a world broken by men and their acts. Diaz’s depiction of a town suddenly left blighted with the departure of a lucrative mining project is reminiscent of the typhoon-ravaged provinces of Kagadanan sa Banwaan ning mga Engkantos (Death in the Land of Encantos, 2007); Diaz, in one sequence, surveys the ghostly town, littered with abandoned barracks and offices, and dead quiet with the trees and other growth seemingly afraid to move with the wind, and this particular sequence has the same gloomy energy of a sequence in Kagadanan sa Banwaan ning mga Encantos where Diaz exposes the landscapes left barren by typhoon Reming.
However, the desolation in Walang Alaala ang mga Paru-paro, much more than physical, is psychological, deeply rooted into a community promised of certain comforts only to be betrayed and left in a state of destitution and dejection. In a way, the devastation is graver because there are no clear edifices and structures to construct and repair, as the discontent of a community that once enjoyed the benefits of the progresses promised by capitalism and free trade is far more difficult to remedy. As in Melancholia(2008), where the depression of losing loved ones and not knowing where their bodies are if ever they are already dead is only temporarily mended by traveling to a faraway town and completely transforming themselves into various characters, the mental and psychological torture of the characters in Walang Alaala ang mga Paru-Paro seek to repair their sorry lots in life with an act that echoes the desperation that has been repressed since the mine’s closing only to be awakened by Martha’s visit.
Although Diaz pinpoints the mines as culprit to the village’s present state, he clearly does not absolve the villagers from fault. The villagers are perpetually suffering, seemingly trapped in a constant search for redemption: with Ferding relying on memories of a former wealth and glory to provide both fleeting comfort and frustration; Willy persisting in his meager livelihood; and the third of the trio relying on religion for alleviation; and all three of them washing their sins and memories with cups of cheap brandy and idle chatter. Walang Alaala ang mga Paru-paro has the trio in the middle of executing their devious plans, in a sudden halt. Wearing Moriones masks, handmade headgear worn by the faithful in a yearly festival as attrition for all the sins they have committed, the trio are met by a swarm of butterflies in the middle of the forest, leading to Willy to breakdown and give up.
Diaz does not explain further nor does he need to; the event, whether or not it stems from an authentic change or heart or a mere inconvenience of human emotionality, whether or not it foils the plan or not, articulates a power far greater than the social wretchedness, the poverty, and the environmental deterioration inflicted by the mines, and the relationship humanity has with that power. A palpable entity in all of Diaz’s films (as the other party in Heremias’ culminating pact in Heremias (2006) and whose complete absence has transported the characters in Melancholia into an infinite limbo of madness and sadness,) this power, whether it is the same entity that forces the religious man to lie face down inside the chapel or not, does not offer instant redemption but only reminds the characters of their humanity, even in the midst of corruption.