Planet of the apes CRITIC AF­TER DARK

Business World - - Arts & Leisure -

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, jackedup 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.

Lahi, Hayop ( Genus Pan) Di­rected by Lav Diaz

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