Critic After Dark

Oda sa Wala (Ode to Nothing)
Directed by Dwein Baltazar
Oct. 18, noon, at Gateway, Cubao, QC
Oct. 22, 5 p.m., Cinema 76 Anonas, QC

DWEIN BALTAZAR’s Oda sa Wala (Ode to Nothing, 2018) starts with the shot of a light bulb bombarded by a swarm of flying insects, the tinny recording of a Chinese song — “Jasmine Flower” — playing in the background. Baltazar and her actress Marietta Subong patiently build a portrait of abandoned loneliness that puts Joaquin Phoenix’s recent attempt to shame: 10 minutes, no dialogue, all locked-down shots filled with little details — the buzz of insect wings, the snap of teeth clipping fingernails, the sudden jerk of a lifeless arm — that emphasize the lack of motion, noise, life.

Subong’s Sonya runs a failing undertaker business in a grand gloomy mansion of a house: giant windows with capiz screens, soaring ceilings, ballroom-sized living room floor, the better to suggest the emptiness of two people keeping to themselves. Sonya’s father Mang Rudy (Jonee Gamboa) lives with her in that house but they haven’t spoken to each other in years; while she’s up late staring at the bug-beleaguered bulb, Mang Rudy’s arm snakes in through the bedroom door and without comment or warning snaps off the light.

There are more immediate problems: the loan shark Theodore (played with grating bullying garrulousness by Dido de la Paz) keeps dropping by to demand payment; every time she fails to meet the full amount he sadistically adds interest. No one seems to come to her parlor: more than other similar establishments (she gazes listlessly as a lavish cortège she didn’t organize passes outside her front gate) she seems afflicted with an air of defeat, doesn’t even seem to have the will to fight this impression she gives others.

Then the unexpected: two men drop off a woman’s corpse, pay to have her embalmed. The circumstances are suspicious — the body is covered with contusions, the dress stained with soil and blood — and not a little mysterious (If she was murdered why not just abandon the body, bury it somewhere? If the men care so much — they do fork over all that cash — why not take the body to a morgue?). Sonya ponders this not-quite windfall. After a while she rearranges the woman’s blanket, talks to her (“There. You might be feeling a little hot.”). You wonder: is this the kind of human contact Sonya is reduced to attempting? How is her father going to react? Who is the woman anyway?

The film would be unbearably grim if it wasn’t for Subong’s sly subtle performance: her Sonya has built a thick defensive armor round her self but the cracks that show — briefly, shyly, in intriguingly chosen moments — keep us watching. It’s practically a solo performance, with other characters and actors brought in — a taho (sweet soy) vendor named Elmer (Anthony Falcon); various customers; threatening Theodore; her taciturn father — to contrast with her isolation. And being a comedienne (she’s better known under the moniker “Pokwang”) Subong has the timing and skill to give her lines a quietly comic or profoundly despairing shading, sometimes both.

Did I say “solo”? Call it a two-hander — for her actress Baltazar creates an almost hermetically sealed film: spare music score (most prominently what’s heard on cassette recorder), precious few outside locations, a carefully curated panoply of sound effects (Elmer’s car accident for one is heard not seen). With cinematographer Neil Daza (come to think of it, for a portrait of loneliness quite a few talented people collaborate) Baltazar employs a muted palette: no bright colors, mainly a range of beige, gray, subdued greens, lit with naked incandescents and surrounded by inky black. Baltazar and Daza also on occasion affect an Ozu sense of symmetry with characters at times speaking directly to the camera or sitting forlornly, framed by doorway or window frame — a lovingly ornamented if bleakly designed cage.

Sonya’s story suggest influences more literary than cinematic, which is actually quite refreshing: William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”; a touch of D.H. Lawrence’s “The Rocking-Horse Winner”; briefly, W.W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw.” Baltazar, without being explicit, dwells on and even tweaks our need to mourn loss, our ways of coping with decay and the crushing weight of solitude; where in her other film Gusto Kita With All My Hypothalamus (I Want You With All My Hypothalamus) she has four different men dealing with their single status in four different ways, here she narrows her focus to a woman entombed alive, the outside world if not provoking her or threatening her then pointedly ignoring her. One of Baltazar’s more stinging suggestions: of the various responses, Sonya would perhaps like the last one the least.

All very disturbing and not a little funny — Baltazar keeps the humor deadpan grim, almost never obvious; as with the surrounding actors that sharpen Sonya’s sense of alienation, the director uses humor to sharpen the pathos surrounding her heroine.

And then that haunting final frame where (skip the rest of this paragraph if you haven’t seen the film!) the film, after coyly skirting the edges for so long, finally slips gently into (as if into a warm bath) the realm of horror. Horror? More a lyrical coda, really, that reveals to us why Sonya’s story disturbs us so: not because of all the cadavers or the desolation but because of the love — that unnamed, unnameable love we have for what waits for us in the end, in the dark, ready to give us our last warm embrace.

One of the best films of the year? Of last year? One of the best whatever year, I think.

Oda sa Wala will be screened today, noon, at Gateway Cinema, Gateway Mall, Cubao, Quezon City, and on Oct 22, 5 p.m., at Cinema 76 Anonas in Quezon City.