March 28, 2016
Director Lav Diaz has been responsible for many critically-acclaimed but mainstream-unaccessible glacial-paced very long films. His longest masterpiece was the 11-hour long " Ebolusyon Ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino" (Evolution Of A Filipino Family, 2004). His films have not been shown in regular cinema houses, only in film festivals for critics and cinephiles, until recently. Personally, I have seen two Lav Diaz films: the four-hour long "Norte: Hangganan ng Kasaysayan" (2013) (MY REVIEW) and the five-hour long "Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon" (2014) (MY REVIEW).
This latest film "Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis" (A Lullaby for the Sorrowful Mystery, 2016) is eight hours long. It has recently been awarded the Silver Bear in this year's Berlinale, courtesy of a board of jurors headed by no less than Meryl Streep. Adding to its mainstream appeal is the casting of very popular male superstars in the lead roles, Piolo Pascual and John Lloyd Cruz. That this film even got a regular theatrical run is a miracle fulfilled in itself. Even if they sell the ticket at P410 each, a movie house can only show this film once every day, and surely we cannot expect many takers of this challenge. Kudos to those cinemas who had decided to provide local cinephiles the chance to watch this film on the big screen.
Lav Diaz films are not easy to summarize in a few sentences because of their complex interwoven plots. This one is no different. Right off the bat in the beginning of the film, Jose Rizal is executed in Bagumbayan. An idealistic young poet Isagani (John Lloyd Cruz) and his disgruntled doctor friend Basilio (Sid Lucero) plot to seek revenge on a sociopathic madman sowing societal discord, Simoun (Piolo Pascual). These characters from Rizal's "El Filibusterismo" basically co-existed at the same era with their author. This part followed the story of last chapters of the Fili itself about Simoun's flight to Padre Florentino (Menggie Cobarrubias) for his final confession.
Meanwhile, an invalid Andres Bonifacio has disappeared in Mt. Buntis in Cavite. Fearing the worst, his wife Gregoria de Jesus (Hazel Orencio) goes into the mountain to look for him. Going up with Oryang were Aling Hule (Susan Africa), a mother from Nasugbu whose two kids were killed by Spaniards; Caesaria Belarmino (Alessandra da Rossi), a two-faced beauty from Silang who was the mistress of the Spanish captain-general; and Karyo (Joel Saracho), a sickly old man who was rejected from joining the rebel army.
There is also a bizarre fantasy component in the story as there were three neighing tikbalang who interfered with the humans in the forest. There was a gregarious male one (Bernardo Bernardo), a provocative female one carrying a puppy (Cherie Gil) and the blunt androgynous one (Angel Aquino). There was also a strange religious fanaticism component, with Sebastian Caneo (Ronnie Lazaro), the head of the "Colorum" cult of white-shirts, and his captive "Birhen Maria" (Sheen Garcia). These two aspects provide interesting spice (as well as maddening confusion) to the proceedings of other two threads.
As with the previous Lav Diaz films I have seen, I thought the main story of this film could have been told in maybe a couple of hours, even with all those separate threads. Apparently, merely telling the story is not what Diaz had in mind. He wanted the audience to patiently experience the seemingly endless and even pointless trekking of the characters in the wilderness. The camera would focus statically on some bushes for what seems to be ten minutes or even longer before characters came into view, and would even linger a bit longer on an empty scene even after the characters had already left -- signature Lav Diaz.
We spent interminable minutes were spent simply staring at an injured Simoun trying to get up, or Isagani meditating on a cliffside, or Oryang searching through debris in a pond, or Karyo's non-stop coughing fits, or Hule crawling in the mud (a most beautiful scene for which Ms. Africa should be cited for an award), or Basilio's fruitless digging (even Diaz forgot about him when the film ended). Sitting through that prolonged party sequence in the forest (with endless carousing, eating and dancing) was an extreme test of endurance in itself. That part actually united ALL the characters of the film together in one scene, but all of that seemingly led to absolutely nothing, which was truly exasperating.
Because of its clear storyline, I found the El Fili thread the most interesting part of the film. The film only began to come alive for me with those scenes showing Isagani's initial discourse with Basilio. Another vital scene showed Simoun conversing with the Spanish Capitan-General (Bart Guingona) in English. I felt that part where we hear Simoun's confession to Padre Florentino could have been a stronger impactful ending for the film, but Diaz had other ideas.
The recitation of Rizal's "Mi Ultimo Adios" by Simoun (in Spanish) and Isagani (in magnificent Tagalog) was the centerpiece scene of the whole film. Following closely in second was that scene where the two discuss Art in relation to Freedom. While their style of acting still reflect their mainstream stardom when compared to the other character actors around them, Pascual and Cruz have certainly outdone themselves in those two special scenes upon which the most important messages of the film were delivered.
This long-winded, immersive style of this film is definitely not for everybody. The 8-hour running time alone would already discourage a lot of audiences. I watched it in SM Sta. Mesa yesterday. The screening started at 1 pm. There was a single 15-minute break at about 5:15 pm. The film ended at 9:15 pm. We were only about 20 hardy souls who took the "Hele Challenge" that Easter Sunday.
I cannot say that I fully understood all the scenes. I do not know the reason why Quiroge's women were flashily-dressed transgenders nor why they were not given better Fukienese language coaches. I do not know why Simoun's torso had to be in full display as he lay gasping in bed prior to his confession. His abdominal gunshot wound was inexplicably not seen there anymore though. The black and white cinematography of Larry Manda was excellent, but I don't know why the quality of lighting was inconsistent such that several scenes were almost in complete darkness.
What I am sure of though is that I have witnessed a film masterpiece unfolding brimming with symbolism I am unable to grasp all at once. It is too big and complex for complete digestion. I do welcome more opportunities to watch more films like this in the future. I want to be awed once again with such magnetic visual poetry. Such was its mesmerizing effect that I was transfixed for eight hours without nodding off, even at its slowest moments. Its bleak message about the identity of Filipinos as a people should inspire the youth to go and realize that elusive ideal. 8/10.