I spent last weekend in the dark... the darkness of the screening room that is (it was not even a proper cinema). I had long been anticipating the Lav Diaz retrospective in Bangkok since I learned about it last month. Organized chiefly by Duangkamol Filmhouse the retrospective titled Death in the Land of Melancholia is the first in Southeast Asia, not even the Philippines had mounted anything similar.
This is definitely an opportunity I did not want to miss.
So I convinced Liwayway and Bubbles to catch some screenings last Saturday and Sunday at the Bangkok Arts and Culture Centre and Bangkok CODE respectively.
Well, any one who has heard of Lav Diaz (check out this pretty comprehensive list of his works) knows that his movies are not exactly the most mainstream of movies; with their long running hours one of the reasons why the movies are a bit intimidating.
And I mean LOOOOOOONG, dahling.
Last Saturday we watched Melancholia (running time: seven and a half hours), which won the Horizons Award at the 2008 Venice Film Festival. A prostitute, a nun, and a pimp find themselves in the mist-covered mountain town of Sagada. At first they appear as strangers to each other but it eventually becomes clear that what connects them is their struggle with the deep sorrows engulfing them.
We met Lav Diaz last Saturday, BTW.
Sunday was devoted to Death in the Land of Encantos (running time: nine hours). The film tells the story of an accomplished poet who returns to his hometown in Bicol in the aftermath of a strong typhoon. Set mostly in a wasteland of furniture strewn all over the place and decapitated coconut trees, the main character reconnects with his two friends who help him realize about the many things he has been fleeing from.
While both films show individual struggles of the characters - particularly in facing their demons, inner conflicts, and perhaps emptiness - I find Diaz's works ( or at least the two movies mentioned) as allegories of the struggle of Filipinos in coming to terms with our past and of defining our identity.
Both movies are blatantly critical of the cultural morass we have long been stuck in and Diaz uses his characters as mouth-pieces of his agenda (be it political, cultural, or artistic).
In both movies, we repeatedly witness characters engage in discourses on the so-called nationalist struggle, e.g. the need to change the "system", the celebrity culture, the decline of Philippine cinema and artistry as a whole, our spirituality, our confused sense of identity, of the lack of social justice, etc.
Not that I disagree with many of Diaz assertions, unfortunately, the films I saw do not say anything Filipinos do not know already. All of us have participated is similar discussions with our friends and we have likewise read many articles or books on these matters written by memebers from all sides of the political spectrum. How many times do we need to recycle these cliches? (OMG, am I that jaded?)
I suppose Diaz believes that his films can awaken the political consciousness of Filipinos. (Aren't we already awakened enough but we just don't agree which path to take much less unite and act towards a common direction? )
However, the running time of his films alone are intimidating enough for most Filipino viewers, therefore, I doubt if his message can reach as many people as he wishes.
The political message of his films aside, I'd also comment on the aesthetics of Diaz's films. One of my intentions of watching his movies is exactly to challenge my attention span, which we all know equals that of an amoeba.
Surprise, surprise, dahlings, I survived both movies without sleeping (OK, maybe I dozed off for like two minutes but not hours naman) nor throwing a tantrum, not even a walk-out. I know, place the crown on my head na.
Diaz's style is to mount his camera on a tripod, point it to a scene (sans fancy composition or tricky angling), use ambient sound (hello, rooster crowing, piercing noise from motorcycles, the wind howling, the rain falling), and take advantage of natural lighting. He also shoots in black and white. And oh, he also does not use background music.
Sounds boring, non? On the contrary, I felt I was in the actual scene, perhaps observing and even eavesdropping.
Ninety percent of the time his scenes are taken in a single, static shot, and as a viewer I felt that I was sitting with the characters. As his shots linger for minutes on end I could almost feel the wind blowing on my face, or touch the dampness of the jungle, or even smell the cigarette smoke the whore is holding between her fingers.
Picture this... A river in the middle of a thick forest. Enormous boulders on the foreground of the shot. Sounds we hear are those of birds, rushing water, rain pelting the rocks. No music whatsoever.
A dot-size human figure appears from afar. Said figure walks towards the direction of the viewer. It clambers over the rocks, wades into the muddy river, head turning from one side to another. This goes on for thirty seconds.
As the figure becomes larger, we can discern that he is holding a gun and he appears to be on the look-out for enemies, judging on how he scans his surroundings. He walks closer towards the viewer... hopping, wading, craning his head to watch out for enemies. This goes on for another thirty seconds.
The camera stays still all throughout. It does not zoom either. So the said figure comes nearer and nearer until he looms over the whole scene, until eventually we can only see a gigantic shot of his tummy and then he exits from the shot. That took all fifteen seconds. And then we end up watching the scene from which it started where the camera lingers for another ten seconds.
That's a total of one minute and twenty-five seconds for a single shot, no? And then the next shot would be in the middle of a dark jungle and we see yet again the same man as a dot from afar and he comes closer and closer until he exits the scene... taking all of two minutes perhaps or even longer. And then immediately after it is another shot in the forest with a minuscule human figure... and so on.
Think of similar instances in which we see a woman sitting on a bench or a shirtless man standing atop a huge boulder and looking towards the distance. Each scene would take perhaps three minutes or so.
Now there are also single shots that last like twenty minutes. For instance, two men sit on rocks in the middle of a field. The Mayon Volcano draped in clouds sits squarely in the background. The howling wind muffles the conversation of the two characters (thank god there are English subs).
In a single discussion the two men cover topics about, for example, post-post-modernism, artistic freedom, the need for a culutural renewal of Filipinos, the struggle of the communist rebels, the man's deranged mother, his life back in Russia, and so on. Eventually, a character recites a beautiful poem, and who then asks his friend to kill him. This scene runs for twenty minutes (and again there are several scenes of this kind).
As a viewer I could not help not being drawn into the conversation, I would not even wonder if some audience members would want to join the discussion.
Diaz's films (or again, at least the two I saw) are thus at once contemplative and pulls viewers right into the scenes and also they provoke and stimulate.
In fact, L, Bubbles, and I had to sit down and talk about the movie after each screening. I wonder if we could've slept otherwise. In bayot parlance, dapat may processing and debriefing!
OMG, this post is reaching Lav Diaz proportions in terms of length, I better shut up now. I still have buttons to sew.
For those who are in Bangkok and who are interested to catch Diaz's films, please refer to this link.