Las Islas Filipinas, according to Lav Diaz’s 8-hour epic Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis (A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery), is a nation imagined in monochrome. It is the same vistas: cities of colonial architecture, endless coastlines of soothing seas, and forests of tropical green. Yet, it is not the same images: we see all these filtered in shades of black and white.
In similar fashion, the stories that Hele tells are not tales as they ordinarily are—because the massive ambition of Lav Diaz, the central conceit of his project, is the interweaving of the historical, the literary, and the fantastic.
Let us count Hele‘s narrative threads, all set at the turn of the end of the 19th century, during the Philippine Revolution from Spanish rule.
Note: this essay is not so much a critical review as it is a reading of this film and a commentary, so it necessarily shares plot and characterization details.
Melodies of the lullaby
One: Hele opens with an unnamed character, writing words of grief and anger to his beloved about the impending execution of Dr. Jose Rizal. This character is the imagined writer of the kundiman Jocelynang Baliwag, the Kundiman of the Revolution. In the credits the character is simply named Musikero (Musician), and he is played, fittingly, by legendary musician Ely Buendia. (It must be noted for the sake of pop culture followers that Buendia is not new to filmmaking: he studied film at U.P., and he has directed works of his own.) This character, though he appears relatively briefly in the film, is as important as any other: his anonymity only emphasizes his idealism.
He meets with his beloved, named Pepita in accordance with the story of the kundiman, and he plays her the historied love song. It is a beautiful image of colonial-era romance, with all its restraint and lyrical Tagalog. The musician later joins the revolution, and in a quiet moment, he wields his guitar, singing another song about the tragedy of sons going to war (Anak ng Bayan by Danny Fabella, a song from another era).
Two: Hele presents characters from the pages of Rizal’s El Filibusterismo. John Lloyd Cruz is Isagani, the poet (makata). He lends lyrical lines to the film; we watch him reciting verses, sometimes in the act of conjuring them, sometimes in the act of recalling them, but always with reverence for the words. He is a disillusioned idealist; but he is also the representative of the youth, the hope and future of the nation.
Sid Lucero is Basilio. He is jaded like Isagani, but he channels his energy for the revolution. Isagani smuggles for him a bayong of medicines; Basilio, the doctor, tells him that all of it is not even enough for a day in the battlefield. The violence twists his disillusionment into anger—and the doctor learns to use the gun for vengeance.
Piolo Pascual plays Simoun, the anarchist alter-ego of Crisostomo Ibarra, who is first seen in the film sneaking into the burial place of Maria Clara. “Nawalan na ng saysay ang lahat (Everything has lost its meaning) ,” he says to her tombstone, setting the tone for the fate of this character, the anti-hero of Rizal’s second novel.
Other characters join Lav Diaz’s appropriation of the El Fili cast. There are the flamboyant servants of Chinese businessman Quiroga, drunk and laughing uncontrollably. Padre Florentino presides over the serene house by the coast, at the end of Simoun and Isagani’s journey. The journalist Ben Zayb is seen with his patronizing amigos. The Captain-General, the scheming, learned, eloquent Spaniard, converses about politics and society with Simoun in a hidden room, over alcohol and opium.
Along the way, unnamed commoners accompany the El Fili characters. Notable is the bangkero (boatman), who helps Isagani ferry the wounded Simoun into the forest; and a farmer, who witnesses a historic murder.
Three: From the pages of history, Lav Diaz plucks the sorrowful figure of Oryang, or Gregoria de Jesus, the wife of Andrés Bonifacio, who is looking for the body of the murdered Supremo. (Oryang is played by Hazel Orencio, a frequent Lav Diaz collaborator.) In this terrible journey, the embodiment of the film’s titular hapis (sorrow), she is joined by Juliana (Susan Africa), another sufferer of the revolution’s tragedies. As a counterpoint, they are also accompanied by Caesaria Belarmino (Alessandra de Rossi), a remorseful character that is at one point in the film compared to Cleopatra and Helen of Troy: a woman who brings down empires, or causes the razing of towns. Their group is completed by Mang Karyo (Joel Saracho). While the women display strength in the face of overwhelming struggles, Mang Karyo, whose name rhymes with mikrobyo, is being consumed by a lung infection.
Four: Contributing a thread of the fantastic to the film is the trio of tikbalang played by Bernardo Bernardo, Cherie Gil, and Angel Aquino. They respectively play the male, female, and androgynous incarnations of the mythological creature, which lend a bizarre angle in this already surreal story. Their antics are also some of the film’s most entertaining moments. They are often seen messing with Oryang’s group, but their first appearance is in the city, scheming with the Captain-General about capturing the mythical Bernardo Carpio. When Ben Zayb boasts of bringing the first exhibition of a motion picture in the islands—the fascinating new technology by the Lumière brothers—the mischievous tikbalang find a golden opportunity for a prank, a technological illusion to be interrupted by supernatural apparition.
Five: In a minor subplot corroborating the myths/truth/lies/superstition theme, Oryang’s group runs into the Colorum cult in the mountains. This band of white-dressed men, led by a Sebastian Caneo (Ronnie Lazaro), is driven by a blend of folk beliefs and Catholic traditions. They have with them, partly as a muse and partly as a captive, a young lady they proclaim to be the Blessed Virgin (Sheenly Gener). This young woman escapes the cult, runs to Oryang and her companions, and tells them that she is no Blessed Virgin, just a farm girl who was spotted on the field one day by Caneo and his followers.
Composing the lullaby
Between these threads, Lav Diaz is not merely crafting another multi-story film in which the ensemble comes together in a chaotic climax. He does not tie them together; he weaves them; and out of the various faces of Filipino imagination, Lav Diaz creates a thorough tribute, a terrific tapestry that sheds light on the soul of the Filipino nation.
(The high point of the film is a feast that brings together the characters from the three main narratives. It is a surreal but powerful tribute to the range of experience in Filipino culture.)
Beyond revealing the soul of the nation, another project carried out by Hele is the discussion of the Revolution’s legacy. Some themes: that history repeats itself (a phrase that is itself repeated too often); that freedom, the goal of the revolution, is also the goal of art; that, on the contrary, art appears to contribute little to the actual revolution, that the verses have no value for victory (spoken through Basilio); that freedom, during the Revolution, aims for liberty from Spain, but that freedom after the Revolution will be something else, to be determined by the youth (as represented by Isagani); and that the Filipino suffers most from lies and myths and confusion between the two, leaving us with a pitiful country, our “kaawa-awang bayan.”
Visually, one motif of the film is the seemingly endless shots of the forest. Trees and trampled pathways are anonymous: they leave us with uncertainty of location, a sense of being lost. For Oryang and her companions, the forest is a purgatory for their grief and the sins committed against them. It also adds to the impression of Hele being deliberately drawn-out and dreary, a film that forces the viewer to stare at the same image (of the faceless forest) for so long.
Other images are more interesting. There are the two scenes of characters on rafts; the same visual, with a boat, is seen in Lav Diaz’s Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan (2013), where it also occurs at the end or near the end of the film. As it represents a sense of liberation, this image of sailing on still waters communicates a finality, a transition of the story to an unseen afterlife.
Another image, featured on the film’s poster, is that of a sick man in European clothing attended to by a youth in more traditional attire. Within the film we see more of the wounded Simoun being carried in a hammock, taken care of by Isagani. It reinforces the theme of the old guard passing on the project of nationhood to the younger generation; and also the idea of the sick nation weighing down its future, its youth.
All this dreariness and despair is balanced by another triumph of Hele: its song and poetry. Though quietly and simply performed, the works—Jocelynang Baliwag, Anak ng Bayan, even Rizal’s Mi Ultimo Adios—are capable of moving and touching audiences thanks to their history and gravity. Ultimately, these episodes leave the film with the texture of woven poetry.
How do we sum up the manner in which Hele imagines the nation? We can find one answer by evaluating the arcs of the three main narratives. For Oryang and her companions, there is nothing but suffering and despair, and, at the end, surrender. The supernatural creatures, on the other hand, are indifferent. They are implicated to be siding with the colonial masters in the revolution, but they seem to not care; or they feel that they are not affected, being above the matters of ordinary life. Yet they show some sympathy for Gregoria and her group. (It seems to be the attitude of the common Filipino: usually apathetic, but often moved by pity at the conditions of our kaawa-awang bayan.)
If we are to locate these narratives on a happiness-sorrow scale, mythology is clearly at the joyful end, while history is firmly at the despair end. But in between, we have literature and its story of the journey from city to coast. While through Simoun it also portrays suffering and surrender, through Isagani it is always hopeful, and attuned to the future.
This apparent privilege of the literary narrative in Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis brings us to ultimately judge the entire project as, to borrow a phrase from Caroline Hau, an important, necessary fiction.