Friday, December 27, 2013

NORTE, HANGGANAN NG KASAYSAYAN (Lav Diaz, 2013)





As far as Lav Diaz remains the capable puppeteer pulling his strings, Fabian Viduya serves as the director's vitriolic mouthpiece, the bitter voice of commentary spouting a deeply rotten state of things rooted in a deeply flawed history and a pseudo-scientific society, this time as filtered through the self-destructive philosophies of the West. Inhabiting Norte's narrative, Fabian is a powder keg, a loose cannon ready to explode. Anyone versed enough in Western critical thought and philosophy may discern how he spouts contradictions that try to evade, but only betray, an entrapment in dangerous thinking, whether it subscribes to the specters of postmodernism or something else, one that's bound to end in grief and tragedy. 

Fabian foresees a "Zero Society," a scenario, presumably, after the end of history, the end of ideology, where infinite pluralism and pandemonium reign, symptomatic of a widespread but faulty appreciation of postmodernism. To counteract this apocalyptic belief that anything goes, Fabian proposes the elimination of "what is wrong," but what is wrong to his mind is even more all-encompassing: his very own family, his unscrupulous usurer, his feckless self, anything that may represent evil. Thus what is right may be a question mark given the near totalization of what is wrong. What seems to loom large and imminent before him is the ideology of capitalism, which he observes and suffers on a daily basis. Otherwise his position seems overdetermined by the abstractions of theories and the burdens of imagination, never as utopian as what he may envisage in his dark den of books.

As Norte's discursive context, the choice of postmodernism and other pseudo-sciences such as religion is well-calculated. As an ideology, postmodernism is no longer as peremptory and relevant as it used to. Perhaps, for instance, Fabian should even be glad that European hegemony and the European grands recits are over and done with. Decentering or delimiting the meta-narratives of the West will allow us to cultivate our own national narrative, or retrieve our own glorious past. Instead, Fabian is caught up in a personal dialectic with himself: he seems to see no redeeming value in finishing his studies, none in Magda the usurer who lends at an exorbitant interest, none in his rich, capitalist sister despite her willingness to set him up for life, and perhaps none at all in himself if he fails to bring about the fruition of his notions of a utopian scheme of things. To the discursive puppet, Fabian, hostage to Western aporia, it all seems to hinge upon the outright negation of what is wrong, what is rhizomatically evil, a solution that is purely theoretical, doctrinaire, easier said than done.

What is most striking about Norte, then, in the context of depiction and discourse, is its embodiment of a Filipino protagonist in a radically foreign, postmodern mold -- distinct from the voiceless subalterns and the oppressed that dominate our present cinematic lore. Postmodernism is nothing new as an aesthetic and stylistic methodology, favored for a while by such filmmakers as Raya Martin, but Norte's novelty lies in its unique central character: a postmodern creature, a Cartesian ego, depicted in an extreme crisis of self-awareness and contradiction. Postmodernism is a European discourse and yet here we encounter its tendencies lurking among us in ways that recall a Bruno Dumont or a Michael Haneke film. Reexamining it with scrutiny, however, will bear the writer-director out. For one Diaz sharpens his end-of-history thematics with the flipside of millenarian euphorics – made more pronounced and conscious by Diaz's references to Mayan and Filipino-cult doomsday scenarios. Fabian’s psychological meltdown is not just the product of conceptual cooptation by Westernized learning but also of cultural and sublunary complexities that encompass us in the idea of an actual end of times. 

Fabian's flawed vision may foresee the world's imminent collapse, but his thinking remains not ahead of the times but behind it. European postmodernism does not signal the world's end since it has since been undercut by such schools of thought as Third Culture, Post-Theory or Post-Criticism, and Cognitivism. European continental philosophy is now just one of many available philosophies, no longer the monolithic arbiter of critical or philosophical thought. If Fabian had exerted himself enough in his studies, he would have been spared the ill effects of defective perspective and ideology. Perhaps even spared committing the same ghastly murders as detailed in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. (But of course, it will be said, that's the film's very point, a variation on Dostoevsky's novel.)

Norte is not, however, a mere portrait of addled intellectuality and the lunacy born out of it. Norte may be Diaz's stern reproach of the West itself – how its ideas and ideals have corrupted us and the rest of the world. (On the other hand, Norte itself, as a film product, might be an act of gratitude, a catering to the liberal West, especially Europe, where many of Lav Diaz's masterworks during the last decade have been feted, have found home and have made their screening debuts.) Norte itself is a classical movie (in its enshrined binary opposition, however, it may be viewed as structuralist and thus anti-humanist as well) but timeless in pitting good and evil in all their complicated antinomy and dynamic. While the murderous Fabian represents someone who deludedly thinks he is ridding the world of the evil of capitalism, his reverse is the classical, martyr-like (if perhaps fatalistic) Joaquin Atillano, an inherently good man, seemingly too ironically good, who gets convicted and jailed for the crimes Fabian has committed. 

As a kind of Filipino everyman, Joaquin Atillano answers his trials and tribulations by dint of virtue. In prison, Joaquin does not become the hardened and brutalized human being; instead, it seems to bring out the most noble deeds in him. Even when distance and absence separate him from his family for years, he steadfastly remains rooted in goodness. He is a living, breathing transcendence: in his dreams, he journeys in astral travels and visits his family in faraway Ilocos. Tarkovskian shades of our own paranormal and mystical phenomena take place here. This is Diaz’s roundabout conviction made manifest -- the reciprocal of Fabian’s warped unconscious -- that in spite of the distinct presence of evil in the world, Diaz still puts faith in the tenacity and uprightness of man. Postmodernism and other insidious ideologies may confound us, but Diaz will not leave this up to the perils and deadlocks of such a discourse, only to the identifiable contrast of evil against which to put virtue in true relief. (Does Joaquin seem to simulate virtue? Certainly not.) If the world is inexorably approaching the apocalypse, man must persist -- despite the prospects of extinction and dissolution -- in transcendent goodness.

Title in English: Norte, The End of History 

Saturday, December 21, 2013

HOW TO DISAPPEAR COMPLETELY (Raya Martin, 2013)




Two distinct ways to read Raya Martin’s How To Disappear Completely. One interpretation suggests that out of sheer despair Martin has gone out of his brilliant mind, all but berserk in foretelling a turbulent disintegration of our nation from within, toppled from rickety historical foundations, well beyond salvation from the clutches of Western religion and neo-colonialism. For much of Martin's young but extensive filmography, he has undertaken a de facto revolutionary project against the lingering constructs of colonialism, to the point of intimating an affinity with and cathexis to pre-colonial nativism. However, here he appears in despair in projecting his cinematic enterprise in a losing struggle. The other interpretation is more palatable, more heroic, more acceptable conscience-wise, but not untouched with a kind of extreme subject positioning in a counter cinema that envisions a confrontational revolt against what is keeping us in insidious shackles. Take your pick: Martin either as a doomsaying visionary resigned to predicting and foreseeing a social meltdown, or as a a steadfast quixotic but terrifying foot soldier -- how we've come to know him -- still flailing away at the enemy's windmills.

Through a youngster's perspective, an instance of the faux-naif vantage that can survey difficult themes with suspended, defamiliarized judgment, Martin demonstrates the extreme possibilities of social dissolution and revolution, seeing matters through the viewpoint of an adolescent girl who is gradually inculcated and traumatized by her parent's Westernized imaginary, shaped by societal institutions founded on Spanish Catholicism and American mythos and materialism. At the symbolic turning point, her mother thus instills fear in her: “Your way home is not as safe as you might think.” This might represent the incipience of her adolescent awakening but this coincides with a realization of all her socio-historical vulnerabilities, and by extension an entire nation and its posterity's susceptibilities. This is the metaphorical stage that makes her chillingly hear and see things in and out of the unconscious. Not just a possibly imagined metaphor, but this also points out the metonymy that puts her in close proximity to the real, actual dangers her mother symbolically describes: the man with a rifle in the forest, the labyrinth-like navigability of this milieu, her father’s incestuous attentions.

Negotiating this nosedive from childhood's Apollonian idyll and order to Dionysian disquiet and chaos of a budding pubescent is handled through the film’s systematicity of suspense, through hyper-stylized visual and aural designs. Aurally, with a pulsating electronic bass and beat, or with the hum of menacing fluorescence, or with the eerie chirp of cicadas that shades into technological buzz, the young girl’s fears are indexed in the present and all their modern complications. The strategic elision of sound is also bewildering, seemingly laden with dark secrets and just as suspenseful in what it withholds from us. This soundscape is coupled with a no less aggressive optical approach, how things appear eerily out of focus, how phantoms seem to appear in the mirror or flit across someone's field of vision, to say nothing of the girl's psychosexual dreams. Here the visual aspects oscillate between the impressionistic and the expressionistic: the former with what is roughcast and deliberately made out of focus, phantasmatic or hallucinatory in their echoes, slowed down to frame-by-frame commitment to memory of suggestive horror, and the latter with its ritualized, religious images filtered in red, pig entrails marinating in blood.

Martin’s visionary prediction seems bleak and pessimistic if his double-edged imagery may be resolved and clarified.  However, he also allows for the possibility of a genuine nullification of many of our ghosts in the dialectic he proposes. For one he sees a chaos of ideologies that may cancel out each other in a process of self-regeneration that will bode well for our future, but whether this is an overture for a symbiosis of absorbed cultures is at cross purposes with Martin's apparent nativism (e.g. how the central character lost in a fearsome forest uses the guidance of folklore and finds her way home is a motif used before in Martin's earlier work, Independencia.) 

How the warring ideologies symbolically engage each other represents the film's most allegorically indelible, if chilling, imagery. This climaxes in the symbolic burning and desecration of cruciforms that suggest an awakening from spiritual, or perhaps historical, passivity. Who are these rampaging figures, however, at the forefront of these subversive acts of irreligion? Here, a teenage girl who takes armed revolt against her defective ancestry, and there, a bunch of skateboarding thugs, leaving behind a destructive aftermath in a cemetery, raping schoolchildren in sight. These images, while powerful, may work to infantilize and downgrade their greater ideological mettle into a seeming outburst of rebellious teen spirit. Yet, from one politicized film to the next, Martin has assumed a deliberate faux-naif perspective, a child-like vantage that disguises its venomous discourse. If not, perhaps this reading is all too literal, the title's self-terminating act. Perhaps Martin is not as disillusioned as that may imply. Perhaps if anything Martin is grounded in the miraculous present, how he frames counter reality with irony, making current for us symptoms of periodization, anachronistic yet relevant: how we remain the opposite of the cinematic figures he has experimentally depicted, how although passive we are not so addled, how not yet irredeemably rooted in psychosis, how from this fucked-up historico-ontological matrix not yet emerged as Western-style mass murderers and serial killers.               

Monday, November 25, 2013

ISLANDS (Whammy Alcazaren, 2013)




Already many days away, weeks away from having seen it for the first time, Whammy Alcazaren’s Islands keeps surging back to me, wave after wave of images washing over my imaginary, surprisingly intact, surprisingly of a piece, unscathed, even through the sieve of unreliable memory. Faces in anguish, faces in lachrymose release, minimalist, futuristic interiors of a space ship, lush, leafy forests and dark landscapes -- many frames of such nature have become a brand on the brain. Certain images evoke those of Tarkovsky and other thoughtful directors: more than a handful come close to becoming iconic, so well-designed and so well-composed as to linger long and endure. Colossal now seems like a rough draft for this. 

This time the audio-visual aspects and overall design have caught up with Alcazaren's vision. This time the themes pop out of the abstract, rounded out, the signifiers give justice to the signifieds. This time, however, he scales down his scope -- though it remains a vast one. If the expansive myth of man is part of the subject of Colossal alongside man's timeless grief, Islands centers on seemingly narrower existential longings -- loneliness -- something Alcazaren traces speculatively to prehistory and extrapolates to the future.

Rigor and restraint remain palpable ideals to admire in the filmmaker, pinpoint in purpose and composition: the concretization of an abstraction, a difficult task, is never refracted nor distorted out of shape. Simply, Islands is of a distinctive look -- is this perhaps the filmmaker's coming to his own? his mature aesthetics? -- although not necessarily stylized nor rendered raw from the camera. 

What might be deemed conventional staples and set pieces in an avowed sci-fi film, which Alcazaren declares Islands to be, mostly takes place off-screen. In essence, we get, instead, a sombre but riveting tone poem -- variants on a theme -- that sustains itself and our rapt attentions over the duration. Lest this raises the red flag, that of a monotonous meditation, Islands is a reassuring film that maps out loneliness without neglecting its timeless opposite. Thus the filmmaker exposes himself with nude vulnerabilities, taking great emotional risks to chart, to considerable extent, the progress and struggle of love.

Like an archipelago of fragments, Islands is a cluster of three seemingly separate but interconnected narratives, signifying one meaning: the bane of being solitarily an island, the syndrome of being unbearably alone, to join the allusion to John Donne and the metaphysical poetry of the 17th century. With this theme as a central organizing principle, these three stories are surprisingly not too dated nor too antiquated for comfort. This intersecting tryptich - shot by a diegetic director -- are contained within a primary narrative, contrapuntal in look and feel. While the embedded diegesis broods with eclipsed existence, the primary narrative bristles with color and vibrancy, steeped in the personal moment yet steeped in contemporary ethos, full of bonhomie and intimacy, yet going in circles with what remains unsaid, forever out of turn.

Aspects of awkward romance, the labor of love. However, we are first thrown a curve ball, the fictional director's treatise on the subject of unrelieved loneliness and the elusiveness of its antithesis. This inflects our anticipation of hard-won love, whatever it is going to be -- agape, philia, eros -- as this three-part-film-within-film lingers over how -- sadly, not why -- man can't stand to be alone and the diachronic deductiveness of love's failure. Perhaps because human nature remains inexplicable in its mysteries, an inexact science, even in its most basic mechanisms, so that this embedded film seems flawed with assumptions as it crisscrosses time and space and is aptly told in non-linear terms. 

Story 1 of 3. Somewhere in outer space, in unknown time, two astronauts in a space station are cut off from earthly contact for lengthy periods of time, sustained only by a chamber full of books and phonographic records, cut off even from each other, although they are identical twins. Something -- or someone -- has driven a wedge between them, a seeming displacement of agape by suspected eros meant for someone else. One dines alone; another goes on a solitary stationary bike. In loneliness, tears of regret flow. 

Story 2 of 3. Set in the present, a second story is that of a matriarch living alone, who, except for occasional visits from her daughter and her grandson, is almost without outside connection. She is tied to the past, to her veneration of the Virgin Mary, to the memory of a dead husband, refusing the overtures of her daughter, the comfort afforded by technology. She speculates about her neighbors and talks, in almost otherworldly tones, of a sublime silence. She remains haunted by a vision from her past of a bright space craft shooting into space. 

Story 3 of 3. To make complete the ubiquity of love and its denial, the film harks back to prehistory, where a man trapped in the vast wilderness, an existential cave man if ever there was one, stalks a landscape yet to be tamed. Primitive of clothing and tools, this man is made complex by tears, made so apparently by the rejection of a woman whose love belongs to another. For his needs, this man can slay big game, even dinosaurs, but he is powerless in the refusal of the love he offers, in his lack of companionship. When he hunts, when he sleeps, when he wakes, alone: Tears stream down his face. Meditating on such dark, brooding, Manichean emotions, this is the prehistoric condition of man, the film assumes, in the continuum of time.

Relying on its filmographic predecessor as a frame of reference, Islands exemplfies the judiciousness of Nam June Paik's well-known lesson, which performatively says, "If something works, then use it again." That is to say, many of the virtues of Colossal are here put to good use: Islands explores, once again, black emotions, their analogue of secluded landscapes, rendered in regional poetry and expansively framed by the pan-ontological convergence of past, future and present timeframes (Colossal also encompasses cosmogony and pan-historical dimensions in its overreaching attempt at grand abstractions) -- only this time fleshed out more thoroughly, more sustained in its scrutiny. 

Presumably conceding to his own joie de vivre, his bliss and happiness in contemporary times, Alcazaren invests faith in a pronounced presentism, suggesting, seemingly, the past and the future's fatal, dialectical dead-ends: one with its primitivist loneliness, a world with barrenness and lack of solace, while the future mechanically sublates or sublimates the apparatus of love. Even the matriarch's tale, set in the present, contradicts its loneliness and elegy with a different treatment, neither moody, but perhaps even beatific with religious iconography, alive with revelatory color, alive with available dynamism and possibility that contemporary life offers. The black-and-white tonalities thus give way to a fuller palette of contemporary hope, commending itself to the transformative potential of how love-makes-the the-world-go-round, how love-conquers-all. 

Why sci-fi when this film seems to deny the genre's conventions? To call it a sci-fi film is to all but single out for praise its modest props, its miniature space ship model glimpsed behind the scenes of the diegetic film. But seriously, the anything-can-happen potency, the time-tunneling trick of sci-fi, remains, conceivably, the most durable device to serve the film's all-encompassing themes. Foregrounded, at the heart of the film, however, human capacities and susceptibilities take precedence. Perhaps this dark vision of unknown ages may be just that, the fear of the unknown or perhaps something that further hints at Alcazaren's presentism, attuned alone to the zeitgeist of our times and what it offers.

Think about his conception of the other aspects of the future: Islands remains patterned after the anthropomorphic. The future still seems like us: Astronauts eat like we still do – on regular tables, with utensils, chewing food as we do. Listen to pop music as we do; read books as we do; decompress as we do. No whiz-bang and glittering functioning of gadgets or machines of advanced technology alienates us: Some simple human innovations though may have been discarded, so much so that no one is there to administer the Heimlich maneuver. Time travel seems the only functional index of the future, hinted at, ostensibly, for one to return to a loved one in the past.

Seeing this side by side with Zulawski’s On The Silver Globe, also a story about astronauts but with over-the-top narrative excess, is an instructive study in contrasts: Islands is strictly stripped to essentials and well-disciplined, going in the opposite extreme with austerity, sustaining one unvarying note to the point of simplicity. If Zulawski’s shows a hyper-plotted construction of the future, Alcazaren’s slow-burning meditation of austerity must have been conceived with utmost calibration of functionalism, with strict, geometrical and rigorous architectonics. 

Yet here again, at the beginning, another strength of Alcazaren is reaffirmed: his fluent poetry given voice via a forlorn woman, lamenting someone’s leave-taking, the commiseration of nature, and the hope of the loved one's return. (That maybe the tenor, or my memory is quoting another film.) This sets up the melancholy prologue of the film, a reminder of what Alcazaren has done in the past, and a point of departure for him. Towards the end of the film, then, Alcazaren, unable to keep a straight face, switches registers and the solemnity bursts into topical song, a pop rock ditty in all its idiomatic popularity, deep in outer space. 

Epilogues, even here, stand for modest but promising new beginnings. Set in a bar in the present, a man after hours talks about work on a film (the same above-mentioned film) with a girl he dances attendance to. Slowly they slide into contemporary codes of courtship: not stilted nor formal prose, but one that is loosely conversational, au courant, in lockstep with each other: a kind of leap of faith to reach the other, an act that renounces for now Alcazaren's trademark poetic monologue. 

Growing in synergy, the twosome engage in an antiphonal exchange, a crypto-romantic back-and-forth, with sometimes silly, sometimes winsome results. The camera frames the prospective lovers with a seeming reassurance of its pretense of non-attraction, the pretense of faux-romance. Perhaps an intimation of a post-structural romance. (Modernists, someone once said, hate the predictability of popular music, something Islands apparently disagrees with.) 

After the predominantly cheerless content of most of his output, Alcazaren has switched from dismal darkness to a kind of diurnal dreaming. Bare frames of pure white, symbolic of pure intention, reminiscent of a Mondrian, or a De Stijl distillation, are the coda to the film while the conversation continues off-screen between man and woman. Even with such abstract frames, this is Alcazaren at his most unguarded moment, an unmistakable prelude to the profession of love.        

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

ANGUSTIA (Kristian Sendon Cordero, 2013)



 
Doubtless, the film throws into perfect relief the microstructures, as it were, of 19th century Bicol. Doubtless, the film displays due diligence, none more apparent than in its impressive grasp of foreign and indigenous languages – Latin, Agta, Bicolano, Spanish, and so on. Doubtless, the mise en scene sports all the texture and fabric befitting its time, its church architecture and costume done to a tee. Doubtless, if it needs to be spelled out, all the technical and production polish on this film proves beyond reproach.

However, there’s the rub. As a consequence of its obsession to get the particulars of the period right -- e.g. the old, indigenous songs, the old Latin, liturgical rituals, the old architectural filigree and the traditional portraiture of flora -- Angustia's gloss seeps and sticks to the surface, even as it neglects the psychological spiral of Don Victorino Hernandez, a creole secular priest, and his irrevocable descent from religious zeal and fervor to self-destructive madness. Instead, it manufactures a most unreliable man of cloth: when it is convenient, zealous and brave in his catechism and evangelism, yet at others, when again convenient, too weak and brittle at the crucible. He is someone who couldn’t hold a candle to, say, Bunuel’s Nazarin or Bresson’s country priest, who must be turning and tossing in their graves.

What the film is intent to accomplish is clear enough: the humanization of clergymen, the exposure of their carnal flaws, their baser instincts. But this is too simplistic, too outmoded, if not too antiquated by now. This might be explained by its origin in an old and dusty Bicolano legend. Rizal, meanwhile, made novels out of priestly warts more than a hundred years ago. Leo X is no oddity, but a tip of the iceberg. Latter-day scandals of pedophilia involving men of cloth only serve to reinforce that.

Don Victorino’s downward spiral from enthused evangelism to sin and anguish to what he deems as the release of suicide can only be a cop-out of characterization. In the tenacious theology of the Church, taking one’s life is taking the mortification of flesh a little too literally. It represents a damnable, unforgivable act for a priest to commit self-murder, even as an act of repentance. Such an act is tantamount to self-excommunication: to be buried without sacrament, away from the blessed dead. That is a deterrent from a path of self-destruction that is seldom overlooked. Pain at the threshold of death, but not naked death, is more their style.

Yes, in the overall scheme of things, the priest’s impending death by his own hands serves the film’s grander theme, and that is the capitulation of the secular priest to pagan catholicity. Genuine angustia, however, consists in carrying one’s cross and reliving the passion of Christ. Suicide is the easy way out. But shouldn’t we relish that this film attempted the reversal of Catholicism, in favor of indigenous religion, or at least a union between those two schools of spirituality? Shouldn't we be thankful for the spectacle of one of them all but defrocked from a hieratic place on the pedestal?

If it were set in more contemporary and Freudian times, Angustia may have kept itself honest at mirroring verisimilitude and describing actual psychological states. But even without it, one can cite Bunuel as an exemplar at dissecting and exhibiting these sacerdotal figures with accuracy through sophisticated surrealism, realizing the resilience, persistence and expedience of these men beneath cowls: these priests are no pushovers, never self-defeatist, so that even this arch-critic of the Church was often between two minds about them, later on becoming “fond” of these clerics as benign pets, or as worthy adversaries, as film critic Pauline Kael once put it.

Detail after detail paints a promising beginning for Angustia, but the protagonist's credible transformation is not forthcoming. Don Victorino Hernandez is presented as someone with vast reserves of evangelical will and zeal. He is as fond of botany and pious to the Virgin Mary as St. Francis was of animals. Also, he is undertaking a grandiose mission to convert the Agtas of the mountains of Bicol. Once, at the edge of the forest, he finds one playing cat and mouse with another Agta. He promptly converts Dunag to Catholicism and falls in love with her. They soon partake of carnal knowledge everywhere, even in the confessional. He then converts Dunag’s pursuer as well. Big mistake. The two Agtas court under his nose and decide to marry. Priest goes suddenly psycho and kills them with his own hands. Then he starts to see their ghosts. 

What begins as liturgical drama (i.e. Don Victorino Hernandez, ensconced deep in his forest paradise, a paradise expressed in his love for wild flora, and the bliss of the Eucharist, expressed in the dead language of Latin, is about to lose it all) turns into Jacobean drama, with sensational elements of murder, sex and acts that can't be washed away so easily like laundry, before morphing into something no less incongruous: the implicit apostasy of the priest, that is, his implicit reverse conversion by a Christianized babaylan, who represents the syncretism of indigenous and foreign beliefs. Then the act that one can already prefigure. 

Does this make believers, as it were, out of us? Don Victorino Hernandez's fatal trajectory has been done to the point of indifference already, too pat, and yet unearned, in its inevitability, in many a film or work of literature. Real, priestly anguish is sadomasochistic, but not fatal: manifested in the belief of unworthiness, the vow of poverty, the mortification of the flesh, self-flagellation, self-abnegation, the ritual crowning of thorns. Hence an ending true to that tradition seems more plausible: the priest driven from our midst, like Bunuel's Nazarin bearing all his burdens, or Bresson's priest of Ambricourt, despite terminal sickness, dedicating himself to his duties, with graceful anguish in his heart, until the very end. 

BUKAS NA LANG SAPAGKAT GABI NA (Jet Leyco, 2013)



Whoever utters this evasive expression may be hiding the truth. Does the counsel of a pause inhere in the darkness of the hour, or the darkness of the story? Perhaps, either way, the film forebodes a harrowing outcome. As it slowly unfolds, true enough, the narrative confirms our worst apprehensions and the lasting wound it has already left on our collective psyche, so that it cannot be told in a straightforward way. Such a telling entails the perspective and distance of time and space, both requisites of which Leyco possesses with serendipity and acuity. 

Bukas Na Lang Sapagkat Gabi Na, to begin with, hints at being chapters in a historical book. A paratextual instance  intercalates “figures” or pictures at the beginning which we often see in illustrated volumes. They occupy small areas of the frame, but we discern a series of smoke clouds billowing within the pictures. They all bear captions of the 1970s, and the smoke appears like the aftermath of volcanic eruptions.  

Where there's smoke, there must be fire. This is going to be about a a cataclysm, a catastrophe, but what we suspect it is going to be isn't a natural calamity but something wholly man-made. This is hinted at by the peritext: an epigraph that speaks of solidarity and unity in a continuing struggle. True enough, as the chapters of this quasi-volume unfold, we see the darkness of the socio-politcal climate of the 1970s, the looming large of Martial Law. There are four chapters told asynchronously, in reverse order. They tell stories of death and disorder, where everything sacred gives way to the profane, the civilized to the savage.

At first, when the outlines of a story remain to be established, it appears a miscalculation to sequence the movie in this way. But this strange deferral of ultimate cause and effect, this erasure of narrative sequencing, allows the film a patient pacing to gather momentum, although the opening chapters seemingly have a tenuous synchronic connection. The first chapter is a middle-class wedding gone haywire, with the father of the bride-to-be running amok, possessed with personal and parochial affront, shooting down everybody in his way. The period detail is perfectly established by how it is captured: through the lens of an old video camera, monochromatic and full of technological static, handled by a wedding videographer. The second chapter is about how a father of a guerilla tries to contact his son about a matter that might save him from the military operations in the mountains where the guerillas are hiding out. The chapter ends with the apparent firefight between guerillas and government troops, capped off with archival documentary footage of the New People’s Army.

Closer and closer toward the beginning, redolent of our kind of demented engagement with history that goes in circles or backwards, the third and final chapters are what bring the film to a powerful close. The third chapter is about a priest who performs bestialities upon the dead. He has set up a laboratory in his parish to keep the cadavers fresh and free from necrosis. The fourth chapter reveals a most aggravating circumstance, the possible identity of the dead and their dehumanization, but also perhaps their symbolic resurrection and immortalization.

Paratextually again, the film exits with yet another “figure”  -- this time a tiny icon of the infamous mountain face of President Marcos mouthing the titular line in a cartoonish way, in comic contrast to all that preceded it. After its dark portrait of authoritarian, religious and military treacheries, the film stamps this stretch of history with an unexpected watermark -- an affirmation, perhaps, that Leyco may not write history in a literary way, but he may certainly write it cinematically. We know our history, what came after the epoch in question, but Leyco’s film has the hint of a playful rendering of those times that may be construed, in a way, as a staking out of a vantage point, a leaving behind of his signature, and certainly, an irreverent gesture at the brutal Marcosian repression, fueled by the stabbing and penetrating script of the equally irreverent and iconoclastic person of Norman Wilwayco. It is an act of solidarity with revolutionaries and social reformers as well, though Leyco's ways suggest that his contribution to the cause may be to some extent idiosyncratic, since it is personal, since his voice may be a generation removed from the era in question. The utilization of paratextual elements emphasizes this: the parodical 70s-inspired film's poster is impish epitext, as well as the visual presence of video game snippets, the use of artificial, arcade-game-like sound effects to punctuate gunfire -- all tell us that history need not be consigned to books in the intermediality of contemporary times. History must always remain fresh in our memory. As such, it ought to be given expression in all forms of mass media, and perhaps none more artful, none more singular in its perspective, none with greater valency than film itself.