Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Batang West Side (2001)



Batang West Side (Lav Diaz, 2001)
English Title: West Side Avenue

Batang West Side (West Side Avenue) represents a turning point in Lav Diaz's career. Unrestricted by the demands of commercial filmmaking, Diaz was able to establish himself as an uncompromising and relentless filmmaker. He populates the film's visuals with frequent motionless and staggered shots of fractured souls framed against the desolate and artificial landscapes of New Jersey, and rare close-ups (and when Diaz does indulge in a close-up in the latter part of the film, particularly of Joel Torre as snowflakes settle and melt on his sorrowful face, the effect is utterly tremendous). Shot by cinematographer Miguel Fabie III utilizing whatever light is available over a period of eight months in New Jersey, Batang West Side looks absolutely mesmerizing. The film is elegant in its visual austerity, something that has since then defined Diaz's unique brand of aesthetics, which is always reflective of the crises that his characters seek salvation from. From the sleepy streetlamp-lit alleyways of Batang West Side's foreign cityscape that enunciate the internal turmoils of the troubled immigrants that populate them, Diaz will similarly afflict the endless roads of the Philippine countryside, the farmlands and mines, the typhoon-ravaged towns with the vast emotional weight of his embattled characters.

It's length of five hours is both famous and justified. Of course, compared to Diaz's later features like Ebolusyong ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (Evolution of a Filipino Family, 2004), Heremias (2006), Kagadanan sa Banwaan Ning Mga Engkanto (Death in Land of Encantos, 2007) and Melancholia (2008) whose running times range from nine to eleven hours, Batang West Side is very short. Diaz's editing is pitch perfect with scenes that extend to several minutes precisely to immerse the audience into the film's disparate reality. The prolonged moments, mostly draped with ominous silence and staticity, invite arduous contemplation on the matters tackled head-on by Diaz. Joey Ayala's sparingly used score has a haunting effect. His melodies are subtle reminders of the country is totally invisible in the film but perpetually lingering.

Torre plays Juan Mijares, an investigator who is tasked to solve the murder of Hanzel Harana (Yul Servo) in West Side Avenue. The investigation serves as mere backdrop. As Mijares delves deeper into Harana's murder, the film further dissolves into a meditation of the ills that burdens the Filipino. Harana dies a defeated youth, plucked from the Philippines by his mother supposedly to rescue him from the motherland's contagious deterioration only to be lured into the shabu (or crystal meth, the drug of choice, cheap and readily available, of the impoverished Filipino youth) trade and the nightly and often violent escapades of the street gangs of New Jersey.

The participants in Harana's life and death in New Jersey are similarly situated. Lolita (Gloria Diaz), Harana's mother, in order to support her family in the Philippines, travels to the United States to marry a wealthy old man, who has been left physically incapacitated by age and disease. Her husband's mansion becomes stage to a Bergmanesque chamber drama, where Lolita is held captive both by her marital affiliation with her useless husband and her asphyxiating love affair with the Filipino helper (Arthur Acuña). As her reason for leaving the Philippines and entering into a loveless marriage was rendered moot by her son's eventual reversal of ideals and demise, her story warps into an existential void where her sacrifice and suffering become pointless. Fundamentally involved are Harana's grandfather, Abdon (Ruben Pizon), and girlfriend, Dolores (Priscilla Almeda), who offer faint glints of hope to Harana's misdirected youth. Their inevitable failure further emphasizes the painful futility of change in a culture that is headstrong with regards to its vices although stubbornly persistent in its struggle for salvation.

Diaz drifts further from the investigation, as Mijares' personal conflicts become more apparent. As the investigation of Harana's murder mutates into the indictment of the Filipino psyche, his initial recurring dreams of his mother (Angel Aquino) graduate into violent nightmares, torturing him to seek redemption from the sins repressed in his self-proclaimed exile to America. Redemption arrives by the exposition of truth through an act of cinema, represented by a documentary filmmaker recording Mijares' confessions. For Diaz, cinema is not and should not merely be a means for escapism, it is also redemptive in its search for truth.

Through the film, Diaz asks a pressing question, "what has become of the Filipino?" His answer is as bleak as the atmosphere he deftly paints. The Filipino, wherever he may be, whatever he has become, is still a Filipino. The Philippine diaspora, caused by the earnest search for greener pastures, is not the panacea that will cure what aches the Philippine psyche. It is merely a temporary displacement, since the blood, the vices, and the virtues, that bind the Filipino people as dictated by its culture and history is as inescapable as the sins that individually haunt them.

More than being a turning point in Diaz's career as artist, Batang West Side also represents one of the most important junctures in Philippine Cinema, directly or indirectly heralding a new wave of filmmakers (the list includes Raya Martin, John Torres, Khavn de la Cruz) who have have pierced and continue to pierce the veil of mainstream commercial cinematographic entertainment by making films that are fueled with personal aches and visions instead of profit-centered intentions. Although there have been filmmakers like Kidlat Tahimik (Mababangong Bangungot (Perfumed Nightmares, 1977), Turumba (1981)), Raymond Red (Bayani (Heroes, 1992), Anino (Shadows, 2000)), and animator Roxlee whose works have opened the floodgates long before Diaz's five-hour masterpiece, it is the epic scope, the undaunted ambition, and the artistic integrity of Batang West Side that beacons the brave and independent spirit that relentlessly ignites this new generation of Filipino filmmakers.

19 comments:

chard bolisay said...

Quite easily the best film after the millennium. Rare treat to see it for five marvelous hours inside the cinema. Still--my memories of it after two years are clear, and really really inspiring.

Oggs Cruz said...

Thanks Chard, It's also the most important film after the millennium. It's quite sad it's not getting the attention it deserves. When I was interviewed for QTV, it wasn't even part of the shortlist. So I suggested that it be included (although it's not really an OFW movie)... that's how lists should function, to put attention to things that normally won't get any.

Noel Vera said...

So how do you think it compare with his later works? Frankly, though the latter have their considerable virtues, for me this one has the strongest performances and delivered the strongest impact. He's only started to return to the density and dark humor of this with Enkantos.

Of course, we need to see the second half of Heremias.

Oggs Cruz said...

I agree, Batang West Side has better performances than his later films. Right now, I'd tend to say that this is his tightest work, where the editing, the acting, the visuals, the music (Diaz forgoes music in his later films, quite understandable because music might jar the meditative mood of his nine-to-eleven hour features) mix into something unforgettable, something that speaks directly to your Filipino soul (I'd love to read an analytic review of a non-Filipino of this film). You're correct, his later films have their virtues, but Ebolusyon is a bit scattered, Heremias a tad too straightforward and parable-like, with Death in the Land of Encantos, coming close to Batang West Side's power. All great films though... It's a difficult choice, next week, I might tend to lean towards Heremias for its mythical disposition, or Ebolusyon (which I have to see again), or Death for its accurate portraiture of loneliness mixed with the sensuality of its locale... Difficult question Noel...

Noel Vera said...

There'a an issue of Ekran magazine with skads of articles on Batang West Side and Ebolusyon.

I'd throw in more difficult questions: which is most uniquely Lav? Is Batang West Side appealing because it's the most easy to digest? Should we love the others for their unusual, even monstrous, features?

Oggs Cruz said...

Is Ekran available online, Noel?

Difficult questions you got there, Noel, and it's going to take an entire night and a few bottles of beer to get somewhere. I'm inclined to say that Batang West Side is most uniquely Lav, because as I've said in my write-up, it's the turning point of everything. It's the prototype, the mold after which all his later films would be fashioned after. His later films, although different in nature and mood, are reimaginings of the same premise that Diaz attacked in Batang West Side.

Is Batang West Side appealing because it's the most easy to digest? Definitely, Batang West Side is appealing because it's easy to digest. However, is it really the easiest to digest? I'd give that to Heremias with its straightforward narrative and its universal themes.

Should we love the others for their unusual, even monstrous, features? Heck, yeah.

Noel Vera said...

So you say Batang West Side is only deceptively easy? That it has an ostensible story, but with layers underneath? I agree, actually. I love Ebolusyon for the beautiful black and white 16 mm footage, the radio interludes (which are hilarious), the Brocka interviews. I love Heremias for its eight hours of Lazaro, wandering. I love Enkanto for the loquacious characters and the roundabout dialogue that disappeared since Batang West Side (I think Diaz is wonderful when loquacious).

Here's a tough one, I think: is Diaz's cinema the heart of the Philippine sensibility? When it seems that Brocka owns that crucial bit of spiritual real estate?

Oggs Cruz said...

Something like that, Noel. It's easy because it somewhat works within a genre (the police investigation, Rashomon-like versions of the truth), but from there, it creeps into different directions.

Is Diaz's cinema the heart of the Philippine sensibility? I'd love to think that way, especially since he is the new wave of Philippine cinema's poster boy. But of course, that's only true to those who have experienced his films, and have become "more" Filipino as a result of watching and contemplating his declarations. Brocka is on an entirely different plane. Some people would say his brand of filmmaking is outdated (the Philippines as a member of the third world, etc.) but that's essentially how our cinema is: a lamentation on our fate as a nation, and Brocka has summarized that through his films, Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (our moral depletion), Insiang (our social maladies), Orapronobis (our political incapacities), etc. These can't be outdated when many of our present filmmakers are still treading that path (Lamangan, Jeturian, Brillante Mendoza, even Diaz, although on a totally different method, touches on that core driving force).

It is a difficult question. I'd like to say that Brocka owns a crucial bit of that spiritual real estate, housing many of our filmmakers while Diaz is a next door neighbor with instant access to Brocka's mansion.

Alexis said...

Oggs (and Chard if you're interested), I think I have extra copies of that issue of Ekran. At the very least, I can lend you mine to photocopy. Just get in touch.

Oggs Cruz said...

Thanks Alexis, I'd love to have a copy. I'll get in touch. Salamat!

chard bolisay said...

Would love to, Alexis. Thanks!

I believe Diaz is "more considerate" to his audience in Batang Westside than in Ebolusyon, not only because of its length but also in terms of treatment. In a way the former has mainstream sensibilities (narrative devices, first to third acts) without sacrificing his style (breaking the fourth wall, experimental sequences, etc.) and the latter is more revelatory of his mastery of form. Not that I enjoyed sitting through Ebolusyon, in fact I haven't finished it because the technical problems in UP Film Center then were really outrageous, but after several years thinking about it, I realize I have learned to appreciate it nevertheless. Still, Batang Westside is not easy to digest. It is something you eat that makes you wonder why you have eaten it all, while in fact there are other food in the menu. It stays with you and you wouldn't want it to go away from your stomach or intestines, you don't want to flush it out - - you refuse to take it away from your system because it had already become part of yourself. There's a universe to learn in that film, something that even words cannot fully describe, because even descriptions submit to insufficiency. After the screening I felt the need to walk toward Joel Torre and shake his hands, just to release my overwhelmed emotions. Without exaggerating, it has able to map out the Filipino fate. Quite sad that in order to create a work that defines us, a filmmaker has to set his story outside the Philippines. Are we defined by our diaspora? Are we defined by our need to move out, to yearn for a better life? I guess our great heroes have to do their masterpieces outside the country - - and by the time they're dead their works will only by studied by witless students inside the classroom.

Oggs Cruz said...

Very well said, Chard...

"It is something you eat that makes you wonder why you have eaten it all, while in fact there are other food in the menu. It stays with you and you wouldn't want it to go away from your stomach or intestines, you don't want to flush it out"

Just like vitamins... makes you think why most of our countrymen are malnourished. They feed on junkfood when there are vitamain-rich food out there...

Noel Vera said...

I remember walking up and talking to Art Acuna myself. And surprise surprise, he's the nicest guy you can possibly meet.

I think great art is uncomfortable; it jangles on the nerves and never goes down smoothly. It's an emetic and diuretic--flushes you of poisons, same time it's nourishing, giving you tough material to chew on and exercise your little gray cells. If Batang West Side is easily the most accessible of Lav's late work, that's deceptive in itself; there's much in there that's innovative and uncompromising, the first of which is getting past that surface accessibility and realizing there's more below...

Oggs Cruz said...

Art Acuna is filthy evil in Batang West Side. I'm glad to know that he's the exact opposite in real life.

ADRIAN said...

hi mr. Oggs!

Is Batang West Side a type of contemplative film?

Is Lav Diaz the first Philippine director to explore this cinematic tradition?

Long shots?

A 'Tarrian' cinematic eye?

has it been internationally released?

kamusta yung reception?

has this been featured in Unspoken Cinema???

Just a thought! hehe!

ADRIAN said...

I haven't seen the film. :-)

I think it's gonna be exciting experience, contemplative cinema with a brush of Filipino eclecticism.

Dr. Light Bearer said...

mr. cruz... how could i watch this film? been searching it for ages (a year is equal to an age for me...) thanks...

Oggs Cruz said...

Hi Dr. Light Bearer,

I believe there are festival screener copies around. This is actually a very sad story since the reel is being kept by the producer of the film. Even Lav doesn't have a clear copy of his own film.

Andy said...

Sir, where were you able to view this film? Can this film be bought? Thank you. This film is needed for a school requirement so I would relaly appreciate any information on how to get my hands on it.Thanks again!