last june 28, the UP Camera as Art Movement screened Lav Diaz’s Batang West Side at the UP Film Center. They didnt know it was my birthday that day 🙂 anyway, that’s not the point of my story. we were required to write a review and this is what i came up with. this is medyo edited na from the original original. i submitted this to an independent college paper which is still waiting to be printed. anyhow, hope youlll get something out of this:
Batang West Side, clocking in at 5 hours, has sent heads reeling at the unimagined viewing experience they have to endure through Lav Diaz’s latest work, turning off people as well as captivating his would-be audience. Arguably the longest Filipino film to be made (a close second would be Oro Plata Mata at 3.5 hours), Batang West Side has sparked controversy, intrigue, and debate primarily for the necessity of its length. Will the Filipino movie-going public be ready for this? Will it be worth their while?
Personally I’ve also struggled as it challenges my very being as cinephile and artist. Interestingly enough, Lav Diaz shot this film based on his screenplay that previously won a Palanca Award for Literature. It also won most awards from the Urian (including Best Picture, Director and Actor) and in the Singapore Film Fest, thus accounts to the film’s significance as a valid work of art, hailed by both critic and colleague, regardless of the preconceived negative issues it entailed.
Batang West Side (titled West Side Avenue for international release) chronicled the investigation of the killing of a boy who was found killed on West Avenue, JC. Joel Torre (previously seen in Bayaning Third World) stars as Detective Juan Mijarez, a former military officer who unwittingly faces his own past as he delves deeper into the case. Yul Servo turns in a pleasant performance as Hanzel Harana, the title character who surfs through a series of events that leads to his own undoing. Others in the cast include Gloria Diaz as Hanzel’s mother, Priscilla Almeda as his girlfriend, Ruben Pizon as the grandfather, and Arthur Acuña as his mother’s lover.
This movie is not your typical detective movie. It could have been though, as it should be so many other things and yet, it is not. It has its funny moments and dramatic instances but the film belongs to neither genre. Lines here haven’t been defined and perhaps it’s best that it didn’t. I believe that makes the Batang West Side all the more interesting, and arresting to watch. To be categorized in genres and set expectations would have risked its potential to touch on what is imperative. Real life often dwells on the grey obscurity of morality rather than the extremes that spell what is right or what is wrong. Surely the characters in Batang West Side may have their own skeletons hidden behind oak wood cabinets but oftentimes they are just puppets or slaves to unavoidable circumstances that plague their celluloid existence. Case in point, Juan Mijarez comes off as a foil to the negative stereotype painted on Filipinos overseas. He is smart, hardworking, legally employed, and a professional in dealing with his cases. Little would we later realize that his own checkered past is not at all pretty. Even the menacing Bartolo, painted as a ruthless extortionist, exhibits a soft spot for his dog. Nothing and nobody is really as they seemed to be. That includes the film itself.
It did strike me how the film felt so alien yet so Filipino at the same time. Batang West Side played out with a sensibility uniquely Pinoy without resorting to melodrama and other such film devices that continually plague local cinema. Towards the end of the film, Batang West Side has already established itself and transcended into “art film” status (for one thing, its length made commercial distribution virtually impossible). The film also never really ends, denying us a straightforward resolution, yet rightfully so. As with real life, we are never given keys to the mysteries of the galaxy or a certainty on how we would turn out in the future. In the last frame of the film, we see a video image of Juan Mijarez looking out to West Side Avenue and possibly questioning the merits of his own existence. Resigned and broken, he turns around and walks away into the dead of night. Strangely enough, the image is charged with a determination for Mijarez’s character to survive. Novelist Josephine Hart did write once, “damaged people are dangerous, because they know they can survive.”
Is 5 hours worth it? My answer would be yes. Sitting through the screening was undoubtedly challenging but the film style and pace called for it. Lav Diaz employed a laid back approach to his shots and the natural telling of events would require unnaturally longer time frames to properly take effect. There is a certain theatricality to the staging of the scenes, employing long shots and probably influenced by André Bazin’s misé-en-scene. This particular approach worked well as it allowed the actors to take their time, and lent a more realistic and natural turnout. Even critic Noel Vera dismisses the 3-hour TV version saying that although it was impressive, the 5-hour cut would be essential to grasp the full impact of the film. Surely the length has broken film records and Batang West Side is now a milestone in Philippine Cinema, as well as a benchmark for other films to come. Batang West Side might spell out to be either a Waterworld or a Titanic in local cinema, although it seems to lean more toward the latter.
Lav Diaz has challenged much with the creation of this film. I initially questioned his authority and took it as arrogance. However, upon introspection Diaz as an artist would have as much authority to cut his film to that length as I would have artistic license to paint a sky red-green simply because I want to. Calling the shots as a genuine auteur, Diaz stands to be regarded as god, at least in the perimeter of his films. Lav Diaz battled off issues on commercialism and mass media to come up with Batang West Side, breaking out of conventions and challenging a revolution. In a released statement I read online, Diaz explored his aesthetic goals for a reawakening in local cinema. He urges the ushering in of a new age where the Philippines could be a real contender in the scene of World Cinema. Breaking through Filipino sensibilities towards Hollywood standards may be a hard thing to do but that shouldn’t stop us from trying. Lav Diaz’s own contribution to the rally of innovation and change in Philippine Cinema comes out loud and strong. I just hope it is loud enough to wake up other artists and filmmakers to do their own part too.