Batang West Side: Crime, love, guilt, diaspora — a cinematic mural
By Mario A. Hernando
In the local movie industry, Lav Diaz has built a reputation as a maverick filmmaker not only for his unconventional demeanor and ways. He’s seen as an inscrutable, indulgent artist who makes marathon films paced rather deliberately. Ordinary moviegoers, especially young ones whose concept of movie entertainment is limited to hyperkinetic, special effects-laden Hollywood movies, will freak out on Diaz films, just as they would on those of the likes of the Russian Andre Tarkovsky and the Greek Theo Angelopoulos, which they will find excruciatingly, punishingly slow.
One of Diaz’s best films, the 2001 epic titled Batang West Side, runs for five hours without intermission. Compared to another Diaz oeuvre, however, Batang West Side is short. Diaz’s Ebolusyon, which is also on the Manunuri list of best films of the decade, is 10 hours long.
What’s this? A test of the audience’s patience? Based in New York, Diaz has a rich lode of impressions there about marginalized Filipino immigrants and their kin young and old. This is the source material of Batang West Side which he wrote and directed. He zeroes in on the investigating policeman-expat (Joel Torre) handling the murder of a young man named Hanzel (Yul Servo) on a New Jersey street corner called West Side Avenue. The germ of this basic plot gives rise to important themes: coping with guilt, the effects of diaspora on individuals and families and their dislocation in a foreign land, moral turpitude, lure of crime. It’s a huge cinematic mural, a jigsaw which invariably reveals a sprawling canvas of people confronting harsh realities in the Land of Milk and Honey. Slowly and quietly, Diaz pieces the jigsaw tiles together and comes up with a vivid panorama of self-guilt, relationships (with others and with self), estrangement, and coming to terms. Surely, such an expansive, fascinating investigation (by both the lead character and the film’s director) may be allowed to take its course without the restrictions of traditional cinema. Wagner, Bach, Kubrick, Tolstoy, Antonioni, Marcel Carne indulgent? Creative artists may not be allowed untrammeled self-expression.
So, Diaz does not build his dramatic and narrative structure in the way commonplace movie plots do. He punctuates his story-telling with haunting flashbacks and images that allow the investigator to find answers to the murder mystery and his own unresolved past. The dramatis personae are full of real people—lost, sad, desperate, contented, with quirks, flaws, and aspirations. A physically-challenged Fil-Am “oldtimer” (Ruben Tizon) copes as much as his counterpart in the country he left behind. There is poignancy to the situation of the young victim’s two-timing mother (Gloria Diaz) who tends to her crippled American husband and cavorts with her live-in lover doubling as household help (Arthur Acuña). The young man’s girlfriend herself (Priscilla Almeda) shines and radiates, and is in sharp contrast to the other characters, being self-possessed and sensible. And then there is the messed-up younger set, from the carefree but occasionally combative drug user (Raul Arellano) to the fast-talking teenagers with their oversized hip hop “uniforms” and American accent. These people populate a startling Filipiniana landscape in an American setting. The characters are plenty and a little incongruous, and the view is dim.
All these happen in Jersey City, a Promised Land for Filipinos in the US East Coast, where a gallery of characters have adjusted to the changing seasons including the punishing chill of winter, but not to the real social demands facing émigrés. Through all this, the young man Hanzel is lonely and unhappy about leaving the Philippines, and knows he does not fit in his new home. For his part, the prober Juan Mijarez has not shaken himself off the shackles of his guilt. In the Philippines, Juan was once a “salvager” (ironically, in local parlance, meaning executioner) of young activists during the turbulent years of martial law, and in America, he pulled the plug on his terminally-ill mother, ending her life. These are tough “sins” to live through but the film must be saying that even the most hardened of killers have a conscience to contend with for years on end.
From the characters’ little personal interactions and quarrels, Diaz makes the film move, elaborating on Mijarez’s background, to the bigger picture of evil and political turmoil back in the Philippines, suggesting further why so many of our compatriots have given up on their motherland.
In showing the parade of miscreants and telling their interconnected stories, Diaz has proved that the imagination is as bountiful as the resources of cinema at his disposal are meager—with admirable help from his technical staff: cinematographer, production designer, editor, music scorer, and sound designer. He is also blessed with professional actors led by Torre and Servo, and acting tyros who understand their roles well and have abundant thespic talent. It is filmmaking ensemble and collaboration at their finest.
Batang West Side earned Gawad Urian honors in 2002: awards for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor (Joel Torre), Supporting Actress (Gloria Diaz), Supporting Actor (Raul Arellano), Cinematography (Miguel Fabie III, now deceased), Production Design (Cesar Hernando), Music (Joey Ayala), Sound (Rudy Gonzales and Alex Tomboc); and nominations for Best Supporting Actress (Priscilla Almeda) and Best Editing (Ron Dale).