In his monster musical, Lav Diaz's politics barely hides behind metaphors

Paolo Vergara, ANC-X

Posted at May 28 2018 08:00 PM

Piolo Pascual stars in Lav Diaz's 'Ang Panahon ng Halimaw.' Handout

MANILA -- "Ang Panahon ng Halimaw," Lav Diaz’s latest work, is a musical marketed as “a rock opera.” But it is not your typical musical, the whole genre having been subverted in this almost four-hour film.

Set in the late '70s, the story revolves around specific residents of the fictional town of Ginto, terrorized as it is by military-led civilian volunteers who are supposedly protecting the people from Communist rebels. A doctor from the city, Lorena (Shaina Magdayao) sets up a provincial clinic in the area and then mysteriously disappears. Her husband, the poet Hugo Haniway (Piolo Pascual), sets foot in Ginto to find her.

There are fantastical elements to the film, and recurring images: a child launching paper planes, a mysterious lady in black, a singing spirit initially mistaken as a background character, and a gibberish-speaking despot with a shrunken face on the back of his head. 

Some are a literal part of the plot, some are metaphorical devices—sometimes the lines between the two blur.

And yet for the most part, this is one of Diaz’s most accessible films. Many of the references to current events do not hide behind metaphor nor suggestion. Viewers will find in "Halimaw" uncanny and discomfiting parallels with today’s newsreels.

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Like in many of his films, there is barely any camera movement in "Halimaw." Each angle, each shot is akin to a theater stage set-up, with the actors walking in and out of a steady camera. Like watercolor bleeding into paper, Diaz’s drawn-out shots are spaces encouraging contemplation, the hallmark of “slow cinema.”

The songs, all written and composed by Diaz, are more like pasyon chanted on the hottest days of Holy Week than the energetic, stirring numbers associated with the musical genre. Nonetheless, it is the music that carries most of the emotional weight of the movie. It is where Diaz’s anger is most prominent—although his is not a thundering, resounding rage, but a subdued, seething hiss.

“People want certainty,” the tomboy lieutenant sings in baritone. In angry response, the village academic sings back, tenor rising, “There is no certainty in this world.”

“We’ll build them a church,” the army woman continues in another scene, toasting with one of her henchmen. He then adds, “And we’ll make them worship the vampire! The tikbalang! The ghost!”

“Cults! People never learn. People worship cults. Wake up, use your mind,” the academic sings again, this time among the townspeople, “the masses cheer on their own slaughter.”

Bituin Escalante and Piolo Pascual. Handout

The musical numbers (if one can call it that) carry no instrumental accompaniments. They are essentially singing voices—sometimes resounding, sometimes hoarse, always inflamed—singing against ambient noise: night breezes, dogs barking, crickets. This austerity adds emphasis to the more charged moments, like when characters sing to each other in argument, ending in a crescendo of blended voices with contrasting messages:

“Know that you are loved,” says one. 

“Know that your dream is futile,” goes another.

As it is with any Lav Diaz film, this is one that requires intense audience participation, the minimum obligation being to sit through the three hours and 54 minutes. But this is not enough. 

In "Panahon ng Halimaw," we are asked to draw our own conclusions and, more painfully, choose sides as soon as we step out of the dark theatre. The viewer expecting to be entertained, to leave feeling lighthearted, will be disappointed. 

There are scenes of beauty: acting executed well, shots evoking emotion, dialogue rousing the heart, but this is beauty bought at a price.

"Ang Panahon ng Halimaw" is showing at select Ayala Malls cinemas starting May 30.