Saturday, June 2, 2018

Review of ANG PANAHON NG HALIMAW: Lamentations of Lav

June 1, 2018

Before this, I had already seen four other Lav Diaz films: "Norte" (2013), "Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon" (2014), "Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis" (2016) and "Ang Babaeng Humayo" (2016). For those four films alone, I had spent 250 + 338 + 485 + 228, a total of 1301 minutes inside movie houses to watch them. With the additional 234 minutes invested in this latest opus, I had already more than a full day (or 25 hours and 35 minutes) of my life for Lav Diaz films.

It was 1979. PD 1016 providing for the creation of Civilian Home Defense Forces was already in full swing and causing fear and anarchy in various places in the country. Young Dr. Lorena Haniway volunteered her medical services for the barrio of Ginto located somewhere in the Southern Philippines. She was repeatedly harassed by Chairman Narciso and his paramilitary forces controlling that barrio, until one day she just disappeared. Her distressed husband, Hugo, a political activist and poet, came to Ginto to look for her.

The political messages of this film was clearly stated from within its first half hour. This was about people who suffered atrocities under the hands of paramilitary forces during Martial Law. Via a lengthy brutally frank poem recited by Hugo, Diaz did not beat around the bush to extrapolate these abuses and injustices to various personalities (the clues were not subtle) who run the current government. The literally two-faced Chairman Narciso (Noel Sto. Domingo) always shouted in gibberish and promoted violence, yet he had adulation of the masses. Any guess who this guy was supposed to represent?

To innovate from his previous works, Diaz put the dialog of this films into song, calling this film an rock opera. This is in a capella, however, so don't expect anything grand and bombastic like "Jesus Christ Superstar". The tunes of Diaz's songs sound like simple variations of one basic tune and were rather singsong in manner of execution.  There were all somber in mood and downcast in spirit.The lyrics were mostly repetitive, mostly with unwieldy rhymes. Entire stanzas were simply repeated three or more times at a time within the song. Entire songs were repeated in toto in different parts of the movie. 

There was this one recurring refrain, where the various characters would awkwardly chant "la, la, la, la". Hearing these syllables sung sounded very surreal, given the situations they were sung in -- like heated interrogations and vicious tortures. These were moments of nervous comic relief for me. These were sung monotonously by Hazel Orencio (as Teniente or Lieutenant), Joel Saracho (as the scar-faced Ahas or Snake) and writer Lilit Reyes (as the most lecherous among the militiamen). They had one song though that broke the usual mold, and that was the sleazy "Talampunay Blues" which they sang during a long disturbing scene of hallucinogenic drug-laced sexual assault. 

Most of the songs that stood out for me were sung by Bituin Escalante, who was credited as "Kwentista" (or Narrator). Her very first song was the best song of the film for me -- a bitter love song asking what will happen when there is no more color, light, melody or heart in the world. She also sang about the sad story of Aling Maria and her missing son Porfirio; as well as a ballad about love without fulfillment. Escalante sang these plaintive tunes with such raw emotions, such that her voice even seemed to be at the brink of breaking (but of course, it did not, given her excellent control of her vocal instrument).

Theater veterans Pinky Amador and Bart Guingona also get to sing some very serious songs which state strong political conviction. Amador played the role of Aling Sinta, a Sisa-type woman whose her husband and son were summarily executed and labelled as rebels. In turn, she accused to be a "Kuwago" (or Owl), the devil personified. She sang about not sitting still and fighting for justice. Guingona played a Pilosopo Tasio-type of character called "Paham" (or Wise Man). He sang to a song to wake up the sons of the country. At one point, he slyly broke the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly.

Shaina Magdayao as Lorena represented the idealistic youth. All she wanted was to be of service to the poor, and she was steadfast in her resolve to stick to her volunteer mission, despite the odds. She had been warned to stay away, directly, many times, yet she paid no heed. Her performance was the most straightforward and typical, most grounded in reality. Her songs were very heartfelt, like that of her letter to her husband, and that one when she was in desaparecido limbo.

Piolo Pascual, portrayed his character Hugo the best he could, even if this character was the most puzzling and incomplete one of all in the film. There were a lot of missing chunks in his hollowed-out story.  Why were we shown Hugo as a young boy flying paper planes in the forest? What was that creature he met wearing a black cape and a beaked mask? Was Hugo admitted into the hospital two separate times? Who exactly was Angel Aquino's character in Hugo's life? Why did it take Hugo three years before deciding to follow Lorena up into Barrio Ginto? The answers to these questions in scenes seem to have been left cut on the editing room floor.

I confess that I really felt the time ticking away so much slowly while watching this one. I felt that the story was relatively simple, even predictable, yet so stretched out, sometimes too much, with instances of lackadaisical singing of redundant words and songs. Each hour alone felt like two. Even if it is relatively shorter in running time, It was more challenging for me to sit through this one compared to the other longer Lav Diaz films I had watched before.

Fortunately, there were those special moments when Lav Diaz's artistic genius shone through in his unconventional camera imagery and technique, as well as in his inspired music and lyrics in certain songs. These still made the four hours worth the long while, right down to that abrupt, open and haunting ending. For purely artistic merit, 6/10 . Your own convictions will dictate your personal rating about its political agenda.

1 comment:

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