This is another unofficial site for Lav Diaz, "...the great Filipino poet of cinema." (Cinema du reel, Paris).

Thursday, January 24, 2008

X. Future tense

By Noel Vera

Lav Diaz broke a record when he made “Batang West Side” (West Side
Avenue)--with a running time of five hours, it’s the longest Filipino film
ever, one of the most complex, and certainly one of the most ambitious. On
one level it’s an investigation into the murder of a Filipino youth; on
another it’s a meditation on the Filipino-American experience; on yet
another it’s an urgent query into the ultimate direction being taken by the
Filipino people. Diaz continues to flout the rules of standard Filipino
filmmaking with his next project, “Hesus Rebolusyunaryo” (Jesus the
Revolutionary), possibly the first serious work of Filipino science fiction
ever made.

It’s set in 2011, nine years into the future, when the Philippines has been
taken over by a military junta; the leader, a General Racellos, wields tight
control over the country’s single TV station, radio station, and newspaper.
Racellos’ power is being challenged by Muslim secessionists, by the
Communist movement, and by a rival military group’ in the middle of this
turmoil stands Hesus Mariano (a quietly volatile Mark Anthony
Fernandez)--scholar, musician, sharpshooter, poet, warrior.

“Hesus” is an unusual blend of low-budget filmmaking and filmmaking
sensibility. Most of it was shot at night, in deserted city streets strewn
with garbage--deserted because it’s the cheapest way to shoot a film (you
save on extras), but also deserted because General Racellos has declared a
curfew, so while you see suggestions of crowded urban life (the piles of
garbage) you don’t actually see the crowds.

When you do see people it’s in places beyond the government’s control, like
the shantytown Hesus hides out in, an extraordinary combination of wretched
squalor and natural lakeside beauty--the makeshift houses are suspended,
Venice-like, over water, an entire community on bamboo stilts, eking out a
living. Nine years into the future, Diaz seems to say, and we have yet to
take our cue from the opulence of the surrounding Filipino landscape; nine
years, and we still insist on huddling close together, miserable in our
poverty and choking on the stink of our own waste.

“Hesus” is somewhat unusual even by the standards of today’s
science-fiction--except for the deserted streets and spray-painted graffiti
you won’t see any evidence of advance technology, any sign at all that it’s
almost a decade into tomorrow; if anything, things appear to have gotten
worse…which is exactly Diaz’s point.

“Hesus” is what you may call “dystopian” science fiction, a genre of SF that
depicts nightmare futures instead of idealized ones; in this sense, it’s
solidly in the tradition of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” or George
Orwell’s “1984.” Perhaps a spiritual cousin to “1984;” despite the
science-fictional elements--Newspeak, Big Brother, the video screen that
watches you as you watch it to name a few. Orwell’s novel is more concerned
with the present than it is with the future--“1984” is as much about 1948
(the year it was written) as it is about 1984, just as Diaz’s film is about
Philippines 2002 as much as it is about Philippines, 2011.

Even the storytelling in “Hesus” is unusual, with scenes of violent gunfire
interleaved with scenes of extended meditative stillness. The action is
fast and intense, but after a while you sense the repetitiveness, you notice
the improbable premise (Hesus fends off dozens of soldiers wielding
automatic rifles with a mere handgun). Then you realize that the action is
patterned after the popular “Counterstrike,” with Hesus rounding corridors
and descending stairways in the police-approved stance for handgun
shooting--both arms straight out, swiveling with the eye-line like a tank’s
gun turret--the only variation being the different settings where each gun
battle takes place. Firefights or action sequences in action movies, Diaz’s
seems to tell us, are like video games, and about as meaningful--you only
indulge in them to get to the next level. The film’s real concerns (aside
from making the aforementioned point) are elsewhere…though taken as action
sequences, the gunfights are paradoxically well done--cleanly staged and
coherently filmed.

One such gunfight is followed by a lengthy sequence where a Colonel Simon
(the always great Joel Lamangan) waits for the wounded Hesus to wake up from
a coma. Simon reads to Hesus one of his own poems, and while the moviegoer
may puzzle over this sudden break to do a poetry recital the poem is
actually the heart of the movie, the same way the song Jeanne Moreau pauses
to sing is the heart of Francois Truffaut’s masterful “Jules and Jim.”
Reading the poem Colonel Simon describes a simple meal of tomatoes, fish and
rice--he could almost be reading back to the prisoner Hesus’ dream of a
simple life, the same way Orwell’s protagonist, dreaming of a better future,
thought only of simple things: a mug of beer, a bit of bread and cheese, a
woman to lie in bed with. It’s a quietly epiphanic moment, and a quietly
moving one.

There is one more source of inspiration I see Diaz acknowledging with this
film, and that’s the godfather of all modern Filipino revolutionaries, Jose
Rizal. “Hesus Rebolusyunaryo” is Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere” cast in
science-fiction terms; Hesus is a younger Ibarra, slowly learning to be
disillusioned not only with the society he has chosen to oppose, but with
the communists he has chosen to oppose society with (Diaz reveals that the
film’s premise was based on the 1996 purges in the Communist party, where
comrade accused fellow comrade, and entire cells were killed on the basis of
mere suspicion). Hesus’ commanding officer, Miguel (the extraordinary
Ronnie Lazaro), acts as a more mysterious, more malevolent Elias, whispering
subversive thoughts to Hesus, guiding him along paths of either sudden
damnation or eventual enlightenment (Hesus can’t be sure which).

A film about the future, mixing the influences of George Orwell, Jose Rizal
and video games! “Hesus” was made on a shoestring budget (around five
million pesos) and shot in roughly twenty days, but the ideas teeming in it
are enough for a half-dozen lesser films. It’s an action flick with an
attitude, a political satire with a philosophical bent, a science-fiction
drama with a committed political stance; it’s also, after all is said and
done, something of a surprise that films like this can still be made, in
this country, in these times. No, more than a surprise--it’s a freaking

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