Filipino movies

‘Essential Truths of the Lake’ review: Into the depths of endless questions of how 

Lé Baltar

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

‘Essential Truths of the Lake’ review: Into the depths of endless questions of how 

John Lloyd Cruz in 'Essential Truths of the Lake.'

Photo from Epicmedia

'Essential Truths of the Lake' presents a compelling interrogation of the political situation in the Philippines, and how its penchant for violence and human rights abuses ultimately shapes its future and changes its people, for better or worse

Spoilers ahead.

International Cinephile Society’s Ali Ercivan describes Essential Truths of the Lake as “a procedural by way of Lav Diaz,” and aptly so. The film, which marks Diaz’s return to the Locarno Film Festival nine years after his Golden Leopard win for Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon, reprises the character of famed police detective Hermes Papauran (John Lloyd Cruz). Neither a prequel or a sequel, according to Diaz, the film is already the second installment in his “Papauran saga,” with the third part now in the works. First shot in the first quarter of 2020, this Taal part of the saga, though, actually came first but was only completed by late 2021 due largely to the pandemic and some changes in the trajectory of the narrative, making way for Kapag Wala Nang Mga Alon, which was created in between.

Unlike in Kapag Wala Nang Mga Alon, however, Hermes here has yet to be afflicted by a skin disease that slowly gnaws at him. But the internal turmoil remains malignant, as Hermes is tormented by memories and nightmares of his first kill, of the innocent lives he took without hesitation during Rodrigo Duterte’s notorious drug war. The guilt then prompts him to unearth a case that has been dead for 15 years, infamously known as “the Philippine eagle” case, which concerns the mysterious disappearance of artist-activist Esmeralda Stuart (Shaina Magdayao). This leads the investigator to the proverbial lake.

In the earlier parts of the film, Hermes’s former police academy classmate (Agot Isidro) raises a loaded question to which Diaz affixes his main argument: “What ails the Philippine National Police?” Of course, there are many complex ways to go about this question. And Hermes tells us that “it’s important that a policeman’s first and main ideological line is anti-violence” — an assertion that wildly clashes with the history and colossal impunity informing the existence of the police as an institution, especially coming from a man who seems to care for the falsely accused (as shown in the opening scene) yet, in the same breath, would pull the trigger whenever he deems it necessary.

This irony is impelled upon the emotional terrain that Essential Truths of the Lake is so keen to examine, resulting in this case in a relentless, though at times meandering, probing of a nation’s fractured condition and the terror, regardless of regime, that continues to be its active tenant.

Looking for fresh leads, Hermes returns and lives in a remote village by the lakeside, interrogating the primary suspect Jack Barquero (Bart Guingona), Esmeralda’s powerful ex-lover, and tagging with filmmaker Jane Liway (Hazel Orencio), who is trying to complete a documentary about the missing artist, all while advocating for the protection of women against abuse. He pieces the evidence again and retraces footprints leading to Esmeralda’s disappearance, learning that the victim herself has already become a lore, with stories of how she supposedly used her pretty face to be favored by rich, powerful men, or how, at one point, she lost her mind. 

But all of these efforts only arrive at a dead end, consuming Hermes in the process so much so that he becomes restless, only sleeping wherever his body gives in and reliving a feral dream where he crawls in a forest and barks like a mad dog tied to a leash. In one of the film’s most magical yet chilling scenes, Hermes, illuminated by the light behind him, wears the headdress and feathers that Esmeralda often has on, wandering aimlessly through a lonely street in the dead of night, as if putting himself in the victim’s struggle — a struggle that he will never share.

Like this one, Diaz’s images are sharpest and most arresting whenever he toys with light and shadow, paired with his camera placements that often operate from a distance, such as in moments when Hermes chases a man at a dark, narrow alley, or when the detective, in another scene, gazes quietly at the marvelous sight of the Taal Lake, as the sunlight glints on him.

Hermes, as it turns out, refuses to let go of the investigation even under a volcanic eruption, with Diaz populating this section of the film with news clips and footage of the Taal explosion in 2020 and the extent of its damage. Hermes journeys through the ruins, excavating what he can in a place that’s already deep in mud and ashfall. And through this encounter, the film actually leaves us something profound about how this kind of destruction erodes many lives, especially for those who are left to fend for themselves, constantly neglected by people in positions of power. These stories, when juxtaposed against the film’s grand preoccupation and purpose, may seem inconsequential until one realizes that these have become the lived experience of many: how a man tirelessly digs up the thick ground in hopes of finding his family buried alive by the ashfall; how a mother grieves the death of his son, who only dreams to pull them out of poverty; and how a boy tries to survive on his own.

Although it goes wayward at some point, Essential Truths of the Lake presents a compelling interrogation of the political situation in the Philippines, and how its penchant for violence and human rights abuses ultimately shapes its future and changes its people, for better or worse.

Failing to breach an impasse, Hermes stares wordlessly into the landscape of the eruption’s aftermath and its desolate state, and finally lets the tears run, realizing that his search has now become futile, for every possible answer seems insufficient, especially in the face of the horrible acts he has enabled. Cruz is most affecting here, surrendering to the role’s tortured psyche and providing the moment with so much intensity and vulnerability. 

Diaz, in the end, tells us that the struggle to imagine and carve worlds beyond entails going into the depths of the human condition, into endless questions of how. –

Add a comment

Sort by

There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.

Summarize this article with AI

How does this make you feel?

Download the Rappler App!
Accessories, Glasses, Face


Lé Baltar

Lé Baltar is a Manila-based freelance journalist and film critic for Rappler. Currently serving as secretary of the Society of Filipino Film Reviewers (SFFR), Lé has also written for CNN Philippines Life, PhilSTAR Life, VICE Asia, Young STAR Philippines, among other publications. She is a fellow of the first QCinema International Film Festival Critics Lab.