Comfort has never been an aim of Lav Diaz in any of his films.
While his mostly monochrome visuals have a certain elegance that lulls the viewer into a state of trance, Diaz’s films, most of which are overt in their political thrusts, is never inert or passive.
They are products of the times, whether it be Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (2004), which bore the strains of both national and filmmaking history by virtue of its being made over a lengthy period of time, or Kagadanan sa Banwaan ning mga Engkanto (2007), which is borne from Diaz’s personal encounters with the devastation wrought by natural and political calamities.
They are meant to disarm, to immerse the viewer in a landscape that has been rendered joyless by a mixture of historical and existential strife.
Ang Panahon ng Halimaw, Diaz’s latest and perhaps most audacious work, is again a product of the times, one that cleverly alludes to a cruel past but clearly speaks of an arguably crueler present.
Shape of the devil
An unseen narrator gives a brief historical context over a discomfortingly calm and quiet visual of idle thugs bearing arms, seemingly ready to strike at any instance of threat.
Ang Panahon ng Halimaw seems to be set during the Marcos regime, in a town called Ginto that has been pushed into submission by a paramilitary group that hails a literally two-faced demagogue as its leader. What is particularly interesting about the film within the context of Diaz’s expanding filmography is that it is keen on describing the shape of its devil by dissecting its crafty machinations, its malevolent follies and its grave atrocities.
Diaz opens with his two soldiers (Joel Saracho and Hazel Orencio) scheming on how to take control over the town. They sing of crafting monsters out of imaginations, of using myths and legends to preoccupy the masses. The scenes after show murder after murder being committed.
Everything is all too familiar.
Diaz only introduces Hugo Haniway (Piolo Pascual), the poet who relocates to Ginto to look for his missing wife (Shaina Magdayao) after. Hugo is not unlike many of Diaz’s fractured protagonists. He is enlightened but forced into a predicament of existential doubt by sinister powers.
We first see Hugo among his people. He reads a declaration and a story from a piece of paper he claims he found inside a trash bin after tripping one night along an alleyway. He speaks of a dilemma that now plagues his kind. He speaks of being silenced not by intimidation, but by apathy or compromise or full surrender to evil.
He then tells the story of the last Filipino whose only glimmer of hope for survival from a cataclysmic flood is a cloud within his reach. In one powerful scene, Diaz proclaims the power of art that results from strife and tragedy, of its ability to ignite emotions and rally imaginations.
Diaz elevates the essential role of the artist in a society that bends towards corruption. He, however, also laments the artist and his art that bend towards complicity.
Rife with metaphors
Ang Panahon ng Halimaw is a film that thrives on the metaphors it liberally uses.
Like Orpheus who goes to the land of the dead to rescue his beloved Eurydice, Hugo finds his way to Ginto to discover a town drowning in melancholy. There, his presence as a poet is questioned not only by the goons lording over the town but also by those who resist, particularly Paham (Bart Guingona), who mourns his neighbors’ quickness to fall under the spell of the authorities, and Kwago (Pinky Amador), who is relentlessly seeking justice for the atrocities dealt to her family.
He is faced with the question of submitting to his humanity and wallow on his personal tragedies or acquiescing to his role as an artist in a land that desperately needs an art that is true.
What is interesting about Ang Panahon ng Halimaw is that it reveals how art can be both imprisoning and liberating.
The songs that pervade the film range from the repetitive and in turn, easy to mumble and hum, and the searing and impassioned. In one scene, the goons round up townspeople, singing a mantra-like anthem that speaks about assimilation, the rhythm and slide of its sly lyrics of which make the song catchy like an addicting tongue twister.
In another scene, the goons are torturing Hugo’s wife, who at first resists their violent and lewd advances before submitting out of the influence of a potent drug. The songs are either crass and infectious or sorrowful and moving, which is very telling of how culture has been used either to distract the populace into stupor or as a call to arms.
Poses a challenge
Diaz knows his audience.
He knows that the people who will first flock to see Ang Panahon ng Halimaw are artists or people who are willing and ready to consume his kind of cinema. His aim is not to put them in a comfortable position. To put them in their backs. In the end, he poses a challenge on whether the artist he directly confronts is one who will conspire with the devil by abandoning his duty to be the teller of truth or to resist and create art with a responsibility for the troubled nation.
Diaz may be using the Martial Law as a metaphor for the country in a state of strife, but it is as obvious as day that his call to arms is for the present, for the country now who is similarly in a state of strife but are still waiting for poets and artists who are willing to stand their ground and counter the barrage of lies and revisions with their daring truths. – Rappler.com
Francis Joseph Cruz litigates for a living and writes about cinema for fun. The first Filipino movie he saw in the theaters was Carlo J. Caparas’ Tirad Pass.
Since then, he’s been on a mission to find better memories with Philippine cinema.