Melancholia (2008), Lav Diaz


The outrageous lengths of Lav Diaz’s films correspond less to the director’s vast, personal vision and more of instinct. Like Guy Maddin, half-way around the world, whose lo-fi silent film facsimiles are preferences made by the director to suit his own likings, so does Lav Diaz; it was as if both directors embedded this litany whenever they shoot their films: I’ll do it this way, because I want it this way!

But because of this, the Philippines’ greatest director at present is virtually unseen here in his home country which he films with so much passion and vigor. Only through underground screenings, illegal ones at that, are his films watched by a few of his unshakable followers. And when the lucky chance of a public screening does arise, the facts on Lav Diaz and his films: their length, Lav Diaz’s druggie, and tattooed appearance, overcome the decisions made by the people at top who judge whether the film is deemed “well” enough to show. The travesty on “Encantos”, at the .MOV digital film festival, wherein the MTRCB (the ratings board) failed to pass a rating on the set date when the film was to be shown publicly; then all of a sudden, five days after the incident, the MTRCB issued a statement regarding “Encantos’” rating. It was rated an X for “breast and genitalia exposure”; this was the same rating board that rated “Babel”, a film that featured “breast and genitalia exposure” was rated a measly PG-13. Plus, no public film screening was rated X; X is for hardcore porn here.

A cause of celebration for Philippine cinema, after the tumbles of “Encantos”, happened yesterday with the Asian screening of “Melancholia” on Cinemanila. Though, the event still garnered a major mishap. The theatre was nearly full for the eight-hour movie, joining the audience was the cast. Unfortunately, after the horrid one-hour delay, the Cinemanila director announced that the screening was missing Reel 1, meaning the first sixty minutes of the film was a no show. Murmuring ensued, and the distributor, a twenty something year old girl, teary-eyed, told us to wait and that they would start Reel 2 onwards and hopefully will return to Reel 1 afterwards. The Cinemanila director wanted a consensus, if we were going to have the screening or not despite the butchery. Two people stood and left, refunding their tickets, the rest stayed! Thus, the film was shown; no walk-outs if I could remember correctly; and as the film finished, with the standing ovation and the bows from the cast, Reel 1 was shown. After that, the Cinemanila director entered the theatre and congratulated the cast and us, the audience, for seeing the masterpiece in its entirety. And he gave one last congratulations: “Thank you to Gateway Cineplex for showing this instead of High School Musical Three”, the cheering grew; Philippine cinema, kicking and screaming, was still alive.

I would not so hastily judge the film as being a masterpiece; I would actually concur that it was one of the most difficult films to watch – despite me being glued on to my seat. Lasting eight hours, hardly his longest film, “Melancholia” is a film about suffering and Lav Diaz’s vision here is so bleak, almost too much. I like how one columnist put it, that Lav Diaz, the sufferer of art, has turned the tables and brought the suffering upon us. But the cinema of Lav Diaz is too completely original to be denied, though it is far from being as great as Diaz’s masterpiece “Batang West Side”. The long-take, immobile camera aesthetic (despite the fact that he is not the best long take director) which works to remind the audience of time fleeting, works here in almost poetic like serenity, all through the pain and sadness which engulfs the entire film. Even if the flaws are numerous; Lav Diaz, with this film, proves that his cinema is less akin to cinema itself and more to literature. A synopsis of the film is required to establish this point – viewers who are unwilling to know about the narrative may back out from the next three paragraphs.

“Melancholia’s” first three hours deal with a prostitute, a nun, and a pimp staying in the mountain provinces of Sagada. Here they fulfill their duties with their particular occupations, the pimp (Danny) puts on live, intimate sex shows for clients, the nun continues to wander around asking charity for the poor, and the prostitute seeks her clients, all the meanwhile grabbing the attention of an obese man who seems to know her from before, calling her Alberta Munoz. Actually, as we find out much later, she is really Alberta Munoz, and the nun is really not a nun, and the pimp not a pimp. They are following the procedure headed by the guru Julian – who plays the pimp – that by “immersing” themselves in roles generally related to sadness and madness, in order to understand these principles and live life in a fuller light.

Once they leave Sagada – Diaz uses an ellipsis here – they go one with their regular lives, Alberta continues her job as being a principle, Julian as a novelist, and Rina (the nun) goes out of the picture, after her stint in Sagada. For the next three hours, this “evaluation” on whether they had really understood anything from Sagada begins. Here the story digresses on stories of the past and their struggles in the present, Alberta was an activist and her husband has gone missing after his militant activities, and she raises up her delinquent goddaughter whose parents were also activists. Julian, with the memory of his missing mother, ever becomes more melancholic and this reaches a breaking point with the suicide of Rina.

In the third act lasting an hour and forty minutes, we see three men, who we have never seen before, armed with guns running around the jungle. They are militants hiding from the ensuing military; and yet again, only through an hour later, do we know that this is a flashback of Alberta’s husband in his final doomed moments in this jungle hell. By this part’s end, two of the three men – including Alberta’s husband – are killed.

The last fifteen minutes of the film has this purgatory haze to it. Julian is walking around the desolation of Manila, near the river. Looking for him is Alberta, she asks people around; and in a bizarre fashion these people start doing these strange positions, something akin to a satanic dance. Alberta realizes that these people are worshipping Julian as God, through Julian’s published novel entitled “Melancholia”, because the people think he knows more about sadness and madness then any person in the world. Finally Alberta and Julian meet, but Julian does not notice her as he walks out of frame chanting “My name is not Julian, my name is not Julian.” And here the credits start.

Lav Diaz’s films (DUH!) take time. Like stories, or the great works of literature at that, Lav will set-up a scene without percolating any sort of knowledge on what is happening, who are the people, or where are we. He will sometimes answer these questions, but not served on a platter, he will show them gradually and sometimes through tidbits only. That insistence on wait, wait, wait can leave viewers wanting quick solutions in the dust and those who want to search drool. “Melancholia” does not register linearly or narrative-wise; it evolves through layers, through time mostly, Lav basically wants us to experience first and know later, which is why the film relies heavily on ellipsis.

Aside from holding out information, another part of Lav Diaz’s strategy is to digress. Like fellow director, Kidlat Tahimik (who made the Philippines’ greatest film: “Perfumed Nightmare”), Lav wants to include everything that he knows into the project. He has even put some of his own non-film projects into the film – a musical number from his album “Impiyerno” is here (through some samples the album sounds like Velvet Underground, but fifty times more acidic). On the second part of the film, there is a scene where a novelist visits Julian and just discusses about cinema, on how cinema relates politics and vice versa, and this discourse sounded eerily alike to my workshop with Lav Diaz at the .MOV. Most of the digressions are into politics, all about past revolutionaries and their role at present; yet, there are too many encyclopedic areas in “Melancholia” to count, what’s left is an infinite amount of richness, only Lav Diaz could attain. This culminates to the biggest digression, that of the third act, which I say is the hardest single scene to watch in all of cinema.

Lav, through the third part, wants to create a maddening hell, where three revolutionaries are cornered and awaiting their timely deaths but not getting it, just yet. Somehow, it is an incredibly orchestrated sequence, full of repetitive patterns – one person enters from the background, to the foreground, then out of frame, then next two people do the same, repeat shot 5 times – that leaves one agitated. I was completely wrought by the claustrophobia and impatience of the scene, but if Lav’s purposes were that, to create a suffering hell, I would have to give him kudos to that, for that Hades-like jungle.

I cannot say that “Melancholia” deserves its length of eight hours. There are many scenes that were repressive – that third part. Three graphic pornographic scenes were utterly over the top and completely expressionless, without meaning. The last sex scene is full of pandering pretentiousness — here a man, in woman’s clothes, getting something out of his teeth, and a woman, in man’s clothes’, eats pages out of the Bible while Julian watches, breaks a mirror, and watches the couple kiss, undress and start fucking.

Plus, Lav Diaz’s elitism bothers me at times. Sometimes, the self-indulgence of quoting politics and activists are infinitely un-Filipino. Lav is surely not a filmmaker of the country; the representations of Filipinos, as alienated intellectuals, are little non-truths, definitely not a catalyst of what Philippine society really is. So, if one were to look for a piece on what the Philippines really is, do not look for it for Lav Diaz – though the inclusion of activists and the first people of the Philippines (the Polynesian like Aetas) are of moral value, to make us remember and respect these forgotten souls.

Two musical numbers, representing sadness and the other madness, are my two favorite scenes of the film – albeit the first one is repeated. Here Lav just records what goes on, a mother singing in search of her lost child in a lullaby drawl, and Julian smoking a drag as he listens to The Brokas (Lav Diaz’s band) jamming ferociously and violently. One lasts for four minutes, the other for eleven minutes; but these scenes are as close to poetry than any other scenes, because of its simplicity, Lav just wants to show not tell. “Melancholia” is a suffering experience, yes, it is not for every(any)one, but to see a modern filmmaker at his height is spellbinding. After all, it must be a great film if it held my piss for eight hours.

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