By Noel Vera

Once upon a time

Posted on September 19, 2014

Movie Review Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon Directed by Lav Diaz Special Screening: Sept. 21, 2 p.m. Centerstage, SM Mall of Asia, Pasay City

LAV DIAZ’s last feature Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan (Norte, the End of History, 2013) was uncharacteristic of him -- the film was in color, involved several writers (Rody Vera, with story contributions by Michiko Yamamoto and Raymond Lee), and featured relatively brisk pacing. Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon (From What is Before, 2014) looks like a return to his habitual style with its black-and-white cinematography, its solo-written script, its more contemplative stride, but I submit it’s actually a break from what he’s done before.
A SCENE from Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon
It begins with the legend “Pilipinas, 1970,” the film set further back into the past than Diaz has ever ventured before. A boy hauling a huge bunch of bananas stumbles towards the screen, and we here the words “This story came from a memory‚Ķ” Diaz has used voice-overs before, albeit sparingly, but not in the manner of a third-person narrator, a storyteller. The feel then -- this early in the film, set I’m guessing far back in the narrator’s own memories -- the feel is that of a fable, a tale shrouded in mist and tinted with trauma, told with a sense of dread.

The arrival of Bai Rahmah (Bambi Beltran) reinforces that temporal distance. She drifts into town, a small Maguindanao barrio (actually Diaz went north to Cagayan to find a community that looks the way it did in the ’70s), and gives the townsfolk a little dance -- possibly the first time ethnic Filipino culture has been depicted in Diaz’s film, and his way of evoking pre-Muslim Filipino culture. The brass rhythms (composed by Diaz from an old memory, with Ms. Beltran improvising to the music) feel loose, limpid, somehow hypnotic, the moment somehow crucial. You sense that this is Diaz’s idea of the perfect screening: his films (so theatrical, so grounded in real time, so antediluvian in rhythm and pacing) not so much projected as performed before an audience patient enough and sensitive enough to appreciate the anachronistic sensibility.

The end effect is to grant us a glimpse of Eden -- not the paradisical garden of biblical legend, but a state of (relative) innocence, where people are still connected to traditions (the dance, its audience), and to each other, however troubled or antagonistic the relationship.

I’d call the villagefolk Fellinesque if they weren’t so contemplative: Sito (Perry Dizon) the livestock caretaker; his adopted son Hakob (Ryenan Abcede); Itang (Hazel Orencio), who cares for her severely autistic sister Joselina (Karenina Haniel); Tony (Roeder Camanag) the wine maker; Heding (Mailes Kanapi), a door-to-door vendor. Sito hides Hakob’s rather horrific origins by telling him his parents are lepers; Hakob helps care for Joselina, all the while yearning to travel to his parents’ (supposed) island-based leper colony; Itang wants Joselina to take up faith healing again, to earn money for their upkeep; Tony screws Joselina behind Itang’s back; Heding, who feels snubbed by the sisters, spreads rumors that Joselina is really the daughter of a kapre, a tree ogre.

Diaz’s films have gained such a reputation for gravitas it may come as a surprise to viewers how funny he can be; he’s all the more startling because the humor is played as solemnly as the more serious bits -- Heding, for one is an inspired comic creation, a nonstop motormouth whose notions of home privacy are nominal at most, and whose fingers can’t stay out of anything (why she knows so much, as it turns out); when Itang leaves offerings at a stone altar (a magnificent location by the way -- a jutting twisted monumental tower of a rock constantly pounded by wave and wind) Tony surreptitiously walks away with a bunch of bananas (Hakob even more surreptitiously snatches the other bunch). Not all the humor is so light-hearted -- Tony starts fondling Joselina, who’s obsessing over a little clay teapot, and in a kind of slow-motion snaky slapstick routine he somehow has to pull her panties off and still keep her attention focused on said pot. The results are hilarious and horrifying both.

The characters are of course symbols: Sito is the patient father figure that haunts the margins of Diaz’s films; Hakob is the eternal wanderer, who drifts (or would drift, given the chance) from family to family and town to town; Heding typifies the ambitious hustler, ever on the lookout for a quick sale, or a juicy bit of gossip. Tony is Diaz’s scathing depiction of Filipino machismo -- instead of trying to date a woman (Itang for one) he takes advantage of the mentally ill; instead of regretting his deed when confronted he volunteers additional details. If he has any redeeming quality, it’s his total self-honesty: he won’t hesitate to admit his guilt (he just doesn’t call it anything worthy of guilt), and spill what he knows of your scandalous activities in the process.

Joselina represents the unending victim, Itang heroic, self-sacrificing love. It’s not a saintly portrait Diaz paints here; the two together are the opposite of noble -- a spiraling cycle of need and suffering that spins tighter and faster and can end only one way. I’d call it Diaz’s response to Michael Haneke’s Amour only Diaz is if anything even more relentless, his two sisters eating away at each other in an environment of increasing chaos, the people supporting and savaging and victimizing each other in a roughly circular Brownian (slow) motion. They’re Diaz’s way of saying: “Yes this is Eden, a Filipino version, with vices and virtues like any other rural community. And then --”

It happens quietly enough: Lt. Perdido (Ian Lomongo) and his men visit, call a villagewide meeting, and make the announcement that their troops are setting up camp. The villagers are sullen, suspicious; they ask probing questions which the lieutenant deftly turns aside. They are not to worry, he assures them; the soldiers are there to root out communist rebels, not them. It’s easily the funniest scene in the film, with the villagers’ rural cunning struggling to parse the lieutenant’s smooth bureaucracyspeak.

The lieutenant’s name is “Perdido,” though, which should have clued them in -- the camp heralds the coming of Martial Law, when President Ferdinand Marcos on the pretext of fighting Communism establishes a fascist dictatorship that will last some 14 years. Diaz has dealt with the subject before, tracing the regime’s decade-long progress (Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino [Evolution of a Filipino Family, 2004]), its psychological consequences (Melancholia, 2008; Encantos, 2007), its repercussions on the near future of 2011 (?!) (Hesus Rebolusyunaryo, 2002) -- call it the key event of recent Filipino history, and consequently of his cinema.

But where his earlier films explore effects and echoes, this one explores sources, root causes -- not so much historical and social as psychological, emotional. The villagers are too wrapped up in their own problems and angst to really question what’s happening about them; the military calms their suspicions (somewhat) with courteously worded assurances and continue moving in, with professional efficiency. Taking a page out of Mario O’Hara’s Demons, Diaz saturates the village in the supernatural -- Sito hunts pigeons with Hakob, apologizing to one forest spirit after another; a man is found dead on the ground and is said to have been bitten by an aswang; Heding accuses Joselina of being a kapre’s daughter, which folks accept without question -- one sign of foreboding follows another so that when the monsters finally step out of the shadow and we see that they’re clad in khaki, an automatic rifle strapped to one shoulder, no one is surprised.

After the military of course followed the CHDF (the civilian militia -- basically armed men with shabbier uniforms and less training, tasked with doing the dirty work), and the horror really hit the fan -- but any Filipino knows the story. It took Diaz, with a P2 million (approximately $45,000) grant from the Film Development Council of the Philippines, to tell the beginning of that story (one beginning of that story) in his own inimitable style. It took Diaz, taking a page from our history, to tell one Eden’s fall from grace -- done on September 21, 1972.

The commercial run of Lav Diaz’s Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan has been extended until Sept. 23 with daily screenings at TriNoma at 12:10 p.m. and Glorietta at 12:30 p.m.

(Noel Vera wrote the book Critic After Dark: a Review of Philippine Cinema which is available at http://www.bigozine2.com/theshop/books/NVcritic.htm. For more reviews, visit his blog at http://criticafterdark.blogspot.com/.)