Ready for the longest film in Philippine history?

- Noel Vera -
The first thing you can say about Lav Diaz’s Batang West Side is that it is five hours long.

This fact makes the film unique among all Filipino films; it also makes Diaz’s work difficult to screen – at 300 minutes, the film can only be shown twice a day, with thus less income earned per day.

"We should use specialized marketing, "Diaz notes. "This isn’t a mass-market commercial film. It needs a different kind of selling strategy."

Asked if people will actually go and watch his film, Diaz says, "I believe the Filipino audience can and will make the effort to try. We shouldn’t be making films that talk down to the Filipino audience; we should make films that speak to their potential brilliance. Maybe they have to struggle to understand, to develop the ability to appreciate the film – that’s good. Nothing worthwhile is possible without some struggle. The point is to do a good film and let the people watch it, without condescension, without compromise."

At five hours, Batang West Side is easily the longest Filipino film ever made (its nearest contender, Oro, Plata, Mata is three-and-a-half hours long while Jose Rizal is a mere three hours long). Other Asian films that might be considered longer, is Masaki Kobayashi’s nine-hour The Human Condition, an epic drama set during World War II, is actually three three-hour films released separately. The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple was reportedly 27 hours long, but was split into 18 features released between 1928 and 1931. If Diaz ever manages to screen his five-hour version, it will be the longest Asian film ever meant to be seen in a single sitting. Other long films like The Human Condition and The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple are large-scale productions, with epic story and extravagant production values. Batang West Side is an intimate drama whose size and scope is apparent only when you have finished the film.

No one has had any experience in promoting and distributing a film this long in the Philippines, and there is no way of fully predicting how Filipino audiences will react. What the results of a commercial release of Batang West Side will be – major flop or major success – is a matter of intense interest to everyone involved, and more than a little interest to everyone else who has at least heard of it.

Batang West Side
is not your usual crime thriller or Filipino melodrama. There are no car chases or violent shoot-outs. There are no tearful confrontations or shouting matches. There are no sex scenes and no slapstick comedy, although the film is full of deadpan jokes. Aside from Joel Torre, Gloria Diaz and Priscilla Almeda, there are no easily recognizable Filipino stars – most of the cast, including lead actor Yul Servo, are appearing on film for the first time. The film feels and looks like no other Filipino film, with its video footages, dream sequences shot in black-and-white, and long stretches of dialogue that remind one of cinema verite, or the films of John Cassavetes.

Batang West Side
is the story of Hanzel Harana (Yul Servo), a Filipino immigrant who just arrived in the United States. His corpse is found lying on the concrete sidewalk that runs the length of West Side Avenue, Jersey City. The rest of the film follows officer Juan Mijares (Joel Torre), a Filipino police detective, as he investigates Hanzel’s murder.

Along the way the viewer comes to know some of the people at the center or periphery of Hanzel’s life. Lolita, his mother (Gloria Diaz) has brought Hanzel to the United States to live with her. Dolores, his Filipino-American girlfriend (Priscilla Almeda), loves him and supports him, even when he’s at his lowest or at this worst. Lolo Abdon, his grandfather (Ruben Pizon), befriends Hanzel and encourages him to read books and attend school. Bartolo, his mother’s employee (Art Acuna) plays a hidden role in Lolita’s household, and is a source of much of Hanzel’s anguish. Each of them serves either as an inspiration or impediment to Hanzel, as either a source of conflict, comfort, or comic relief (the film is a triumph of ensemble acting, and both Gloria Diaz and Priscilla Almeda – a well-known erotic-film actress – give major, dramatic performances). Each of them, in his or her way, represents either Hanzel’s salvation or damnation – sometimes both, at the same time.

Beyond that, Diaz gives us an overview of the Filipino-American community, both its functional and dysfunctional members – incidentally exploding the myth of the Filipino-American as a hardworking, over-achieving model citizen. Not every Filipino is a conservative, law-abiding lamb, Diaz demonstrates, as he captures the amorality and indifference of the community’s younger generation.

Diaz also reveals one of the communities’ dirtiest secrets – the widespread use of "shabu," or Crystal meth, apparently a Filipino product being exported to the United States, and one quickly coming into popular use among Filipino-American youths. As one of the characters in Batang West Side puts it: crack is for the Blacks, opium for the Chinese, heroin for the upper class, and "shabu" for the Filipino. Each drug, its effects, is tailored to the culture that uses it.

Beyond that, Diaz questions the ultimate direction the Filipino people have taken towards the future. Is overseas immigration the cure-all solution everyone thinks it is? Is the family still the central social unit in Philippine society? What hope is there for the Filipino youth – or is there hope to any kind left?

These are hard questions, even unpopular questions for most people. Diaz asks them with little pretension or fuss, and for this – for Diaz’s courage in asking and actually expecting an answer to such questions – the film should be of some importance and worth.











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