‘Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis’ (Lav Diaz, 2016): necessary fiction

In Lav Diaz’s 8-hour epic, our nation is a country imagined in monochrome.

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.

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A sense of time

Are we helpless in the eternal slippery march of time from present to past?

If one is feeling philosophical, one might be inclined to ponder the most basic features of our reality: space and time, the dimensions, for instance. One might then discover that these fundamental things, or objects or constructs, could be blamed for the struggles of people—the human condition, as they say.

Let us look at space. Distance is the backbone of so much human drama. It is the element present in conflicts of various genres: in romance, lovers yearn for closeness; in adventures, man attempts to overcome nature by reaching for the stars; in war, kings and generals win battles through the brilliant use of territories.

But between space and time, it is clearly the latter that is the subject of greater mystery, and deeper struggles.

While in space we are free to move forward, backward, higher, lower, and so on, under time we are in a tyranny. The future is always out of reach, the present is fleeting, and moments are always slipping into the past. Given unlimited time we could conquer any imaginable amount of space; but even with the seemingly boundless space that we have on earth and beyond, time remains invincible, unsurmountable.

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‘Culture as History’: Nick Joaquin’s provocative essay on Filipino identity

“Unconscious anthology”—I have not encountered a more beautiful phrase to concisely describe the richness of society, and the heritage of its individuals.

Culture as History, a 1988 essay by National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin, employs two massive words in its brief title, only linked by a provocative conjunction. Entire lifetimes and university departments are devoted to these topics, so Joaquin must have thought his essay’s particular subject important enough to warrant a short but dense title. And it is indeed significant, at least for his target audience, Filipinos. In this essay, the author deals with popular beliefs about the birth of Filipino culture, and does so with much wit and wisdom.

It was published only about a decade before the 21st century, a circumstance that led me to think about Joaquin’s insights from a present-day perspective. But before that, a review is in order.

The essay: crucial points and select quotes

Culture as History is one continuous piece of prose, but thematically I see it as having four parts.

In the first one, relatively independent from the rest of the essay, Joaquin introduces his inspirations—the intellectuals Marshall McLuhan and Oswald Spengler—and discusses the relationship between literacy and culture. The “modern notion” of illiteracy as ignorance is debunked: if the illiterate peoples of the past were indeed ignorant, how come they were able to build magnificent churches and other cultural wonders which we, today, cherish as national treasures? (It is, after all, the toiling of the masses that actually built these structures, not the plans of the colonial masters.)

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‘Muling-Pagkatha sa Ating Bansa’ by Virgilio Almario

Virgilio Almario’s Muling-Pagkatha sa Ating Bansa is an enlightening, inspiring, and authoritative collection of essays on Philippine history, language and literature.

Many have lamented that José Rizal wrote much for a nation that does not like to read. Strictly speaking however, that is not true, because all Filipinos do love to read—tweets, Facebook updates, and anything immediately entertaining, but seldom the ‘valuable’ material, that is. Among these treasures waiting to be appreciated are the works of our venerable National Artists for Literature. Guilt for this is perhaps one of the things that drove me, while browsing Filipiniana in a Powerbooks branch, to pick up Virgilio Almario’s Muling-Pagkatha sa Ating Bansa: O Bakit Pinakamahabang Tulay sa Buong Mundo ang Tulay Calumpit.

Muling-Pagkatha is an enlightening and inspiring collection of essays on Philippine history, language and literature. The topics touched upon are rather wide in scope, yet Almario convincingly and authoritatively presents his case for a renewed perspective on each topic.

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Funhouse

funhouseAlong a highway flowing from downtown, still within the shadows of the city but just out of reach of sober business, there is an obscure cradle of a spot. By day it is a sleepy, dark and dusty place, hardly notable, but resilient. Pass by at night, however, and you will witness its glowing signs hinting at the happening within.

Come inside. Welcome to my favorite place, a funhouse. Meet the crowd of intoxicated animals, poisoned, perhaps dying. Hold the bottles in their hands and listen to them shouting at each others’ ears. You can always share a light, too. The vices seem essential.

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