Critic After Dark

Lahi, Hayop (Genus Pan)
Directed by Lav Diaz

DIRECTOR Lav Diaz has apparently stepped back on his direct and indirect attacks on past Marcos and present Duterte regimes, but if you think he’s done so to deliver a kindler, gentler, more optimistic film to help us forget present troubles, think again.

Lahi, Hayop (Genus Pan) tells the story of three men on the fictional Islang Hugaw (Dirty Island), having just finished contractual work in a pocket gold mine — they have earned money to take home, but only after handing over a cut of their paycheck to the Manager (of the mine), to the Captain and Sergeant (the local law enforcement), and to co-worker Baldo (Nanding Josef) who doubles as the company’s local recruiter. “I thought I could save money for my sister’s medication,” Andres (Don Melvin Boongaling) complains to Paulo (Bart Guingona). “It’s so tiring.”

You can’t help but feel his pain. To leave they must hire a boat (paying, as usual, jacked-up prices) to take them to the far side of the island’s forest, after which they hike back to their hometown. Along the way they walk, exchange stories, debate, encounter a mythical black horse pawing the waters in a murmuring stream.

It’s hard to categorize this work: is it Lav’s retelling of The Treasure of Sierra Madre, a cautionary tale on the corrupting influence of gold? Yet another allegory about fascist governments with miners as victims and the mining company as an omnipresent oppressive force? A meditation on the crisscrossing influence of Malay, Spanish, Japanese, and American culture on the hapless islanders? A demonstration of Darwin’s theory of evolution on the big screen? A mix or combination of some or all of the above?

Somehow Lav manages to at least touch on each of the aforementioned topics. The film jumps forward a few days, leaving a gap that people fill in with conflicting stories: Andres telling his pathos-filled version of what happened in that gap, a fellow villager named Inggo (Joel Saracho) introduces his, for his own differing purpose. It’s a Rashomon-style situation Lav seems to imply, with a difference: where God may see the truth and wait, the devil wastes no time stepping in to take advantage.

Behind is the image of a trio of workers tramping their way back to their families, the powers that be having exacted their unfair share and standing aloof, unaware and uncaring of their employees’ slow progress. Behind that are various discourses — Baldo telling the tale of the World War II Japanese abducting women from nearby villages, to “service” furloughed soldiers (same way this company brings prostitutes to the mining camp, to service Baldo and Paulo); Inggo speaking of Galleon Trade ships landing contraband on the island, of smugglers setting up camp, of the Chinese using the island as a staging ground to supply opium to the rich in various countries — unspoken but implied in his monologue: the islanders profit little from all this underground economic activity, but inevitably suffer consequences. The crosscultural fertilization results in folks of mixed race such as Baldo and Paulo, who are half-Japanese (whether Baldo or Paulo or any other villagers consider this a blessing or curse is a matter of conjecture), and the rich skein of folklore (the smugglers, the comfort women, the mysterious black horse) scattered across the island, partly fabricated to discourage the curious. The island’s dark history also has its darker consequences: a feeling of self-loathing among the villagers; a marked antipathy towards the collective good; a pervasive sense of despair.

Behind even that background of mixed cultural heritage is a sense of the forces shaping human destiny. Paulo’s radio blares not music but talk show chatter, and at one point tunes in to a voice explaining to his host the theory of the “chimpanzee brain” — that evolution isn’t a uniform process, and that while a select few of us have fully developed brains concerned with the welfare of the human race as a whole, most of us are stuck with chimpanzee brains, obsessed only with immediate gain. Lav has used this device before — in Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino, where he injects the most bizarre melodramas into radio broadcasts — and here the voice’s withering assessment of man’s biological backwardness makes hilarious comment on these three partly developed apes, listening wearily without hearing a word.

Hilarious at the same time sobering, as subsequent events prove the unseen authority prophetic: we are, as it turns out, almost all underdeveloped apes, unable to see further than the withered overripe banana stuck under our collective nose.

The filmmaker provides a visual equivalent to this thesis: the three men toil and struggle and collapse exhausted against the background of some of the most lyrically gorgeous landscapes this side of recent cinema. I remember the first time Lav tried black-and-white photography, in Ebolusyon some 16 years back; I remember the grainy, often ghostly, 16 mm images, mixed with largely flat video footage.

Lav has grown immensely in his craft: the images in this work are razor sharp and intricately detailed, stunning in their breadth and variety. Andres, Baldo, Paulo ride a small outrigger and the little boat slides serenely across a vast plate glass of sea; the three rest in a bamboo grove and Lav has them sit unwittingly before a wall of spears, crossing and uncrossing in the shadowy light; the three hump up a hill, the wind a constant hum, and you see the grass rippling like an elder’s silvery mane.

And it’s not empty travelogue prettiness: the sea, the grove of bamboo, the hill of rippling grass have a mute but unmistakable presence to them, not so much menacing as imperious, impervious, infinite. Lav presents the contrast between these three grubby lives and the immense beauty surrounding them without comment, for one to take or leave as one pleases, but the evidence, at least to these eyes, is too overwhelming to deny.

If there’s any exception to Lav’s observation, if anyone represents any hope that perhaps our species can move beyond its simian origins (and here’s where the significance of Lav’s choice of title — in Tagalog literally meaning “race, animal,” in English meaning a species of great apes including the chimpanzee and the bonobo ape — comes crashing down on our unsuspecting heads) it’s Andres. As played by Boongaling, Andres comes off at first as a whiner, often confiding to Paulo about this or that past grievance committed by the company (Paulo often forced to reply with a “That’s how it is,” or “It’s the will of God,” or finally an exasperated “Shut up!”). Towards the end we realize that only Andres seems to have any memory of the past — or at the very least only Andres seems to consistently acknowledge the existence of the past and is willing to act on that knowledge (Paulo does dredge up his and Baldo’s past, with immediately disastrous consequences). Andres, for all his naivete and clumsiness, seems to be the only one aware of the need to move forward, to ask provocative questions, to seek troubling answers. He, for better or worse, represents our one slender fragile hope of ever transcending this monkey planet.