MANILA -- Cinemalaya 2019 opened on a day when strong monsoon rains were causing floods in several areas in Metro Manila. The opening film this year is Lav Diaz's "Ang Hupa" (English title: "The Halt") in its Philippine premiere, even as it had its world premiere in no less than the Cannes film festival's Director's Fortnight in May earlier this year. Everybody was praying that the floods would subside (or "hupa" in the vernacular) so they could go to the CCP and watch, and thankfully they did.
It was the year 2034. Massive volcanic eruptions had plunged the whole Southeast Asia, including the Philippines, in perpetual darkness. The Philippine president that time was the mentally unstable megalomaniac President Nirvano Reyes Navarra (Joel Lamangan), who ran the country as a murderous dictator. The bloodthirsty Lt. Col. Martha Oficio (Hazel Orencio) headed his Special Forces and her intelligence officer Lt. Marissa Ventura (Mara Lopez) were at Navarra's every beck and call to carry out his random executions.
Meanwhile, the film followed the stories of some people who survived and lost their whole families to the Dark Killer flu epidemic three years before. Hook Torollo Sr. (Piolo Pascual) was an anosognostic ex-soldier, ex-band musician, now working for an underground movement against the Navarra government. Memory expert Jean Hadoro (Pinky Amador), who wrote a book "A Nation Without Memory" about historical revisionism, was helping former history professor turned high-class callgirl Hammy Rios (Shania Magdayao) cope with her personal tragedies by forgetting them.
This film was relatively short for Lav Diaz standards but still a staggering 4 hours and 39 minutes. The screening started at around 7:15 p.m. and closing credits started to roll at about midnight already. It was always an experience to sit through a Lav Diaz film. It was acquired taste to appreciate all signature protracted Lav Diaz scenes (those stagnant shots with nothing happening, or those slowly progressing quiet scenes which eventually lead to nothing significant) without giving up and walking out. These types of scenes were still there in "Ang Hupa," but maybe the maximum linger was about only five minutes each this time around.
Still, Magdayao shot several different scenes simply walking in the pouring rain carrying some stuff in one hand and her umbrella in the other. There were some nude lesbian sex scenes which lasted longer than they needed to. There were long sequence of presidential boytoy Mennen Reyes (Philip Heremans) diving, swimming in the rain and taking a steamy shower, while the president was watching. This was the sixth Lav Diaz film I had seen since "Norte" (2013), and I still can't claim that I completely saw the necessity for scenes like these. I did enjoy that psychedelic musical interlude featuring a full song number by local rock icon Ely Buendia, who played Django, Hook's friend from their old band the Blind Bougainvilleas.
However, there were some scenes which were so powerful in impact that caused the audience to burst into spontaneous cheering. The first such scene was the scene when the resigned Secretary of Defense Lorenzo Inakay (Bart Guingona) was being convinced by Col. Oficio to take a vial of poison, and they will reward him by burying him in the Libingan ng mga Bayani. Inakay's indignant answer brought the house down. A second scene was when the the men of Col. Oficio arrested activist priest Fr. Romero (Noel Miralles) for trumped-up sedition charges. Fr. Romero's passionate tirade about the president also merited a big round of applause.
While in his previous films Diaz made use of a lot of metaphors, he was quite direct to the point here. Lamangan's over-the-top portrayal of Navarra was obviously a comical caricature of a certain real-life president. Navarra believed he was a pre-destined to be president ever since he was a child. He did not like big English words in his speeches. He hated the Westerners and their condescension against Asia. He was a fan of the late President Marcos. He was devoted to his mother (Susan Africa). He was not averse to summary killings of his perceived enemies, even entire communities of suspects.
To make Navarra even more of an exaggerated fool, Diaz gave him some out-of-this-world hobbies. He had a secret garden where he kept exotic animals like an ostrich we would converse with, and a crocodile he would feed with chopped up pieces of his enemies. At home, he would don a house dress and worked on some weird quilt-like sewing project, all the while having an imagined conversation with his absent mother. He went out on the streets wearing a t-shirt offering kids on the street to play ball with him. Lamangan went to town playing all these psycho scenes with relish.
It was audacious of Diaz to envision a Philippines 15 years into the future. The national ID system was already in full operation, but apparently there were still ways to have a fake ID. What we see onscreen was basically the same Manila we have now, no progress in architecture, transport nor fashion. The only futuristic aspect of the production design were a horde of flying drones to keep a Big Brother watch on the citizenry.
From such a grand high concept, Diaz goes the other way at the end to offer a solution which was smaller and closer to the ground. Verisimilitude, or concentrating on the smaller details, Diaz proposed, was the next step in our country's healing.
This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."