Friday, December 27, 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 (e.g. anti-narrativity,auto-referentiality and so on), 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


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.