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

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

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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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Baguio: the eternal and the environmental

Baguio’s unique character as a Philippine city requires a similarly unique dedication to its protection.

Baguio is a young city. It is only over a century old—practically an infant among the historical cities and towns of the Philippine archipelago. As recently as the turn of the 20th century, while ilustrados and invaders quarreled over the serious matter of sovereignty in the lowlands, the area known as Kafagway was only a grassland inhabited by humble Ibaloi folk, quietly tending to their cattle. A few years later, after inevitably winning the Philippine-American War, weary Americans stumbled upon this cradle of a land in the mountainous Cordillera region. Exhausted by lowland Luzon’s tropical air, they must have fallen homesick at the first whiff of Kafagway’s chilly midland winds, so they quickly decided that they will build a resort town in that place. Baguio was born.

Flowers with dewdrops at Burnham Park, Baguio City.
Flowers at Baguio’s Burnham Park.

Yet, despite this young history and the absence of a Spanish heritage that most of the rest of Luzon Island enjoys, Baguio has already attained for itself an immortal character. The numerous artists and authors who have made this place their home attest to the sense of the eternal pervading the midland city.

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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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Timor-Leste: the other Catholic country of Asia

Filipinos have much to learn and ponder about from the history of the second Catholic country of Asia, Timor-Leste.

A recent column by Dr. Michael Tan about Southeast Asian relations made me search the Internet about Timor-Leste, a nation which up to that point merely lurked at the fringes of my awareness.

The trigger for me was Dr. Tan’s statement that “the Philippines can no longer claim to be the ‘only Christian’ or even ‘only Catholic’ country in southeast Asia.” It turns out that the claim of being the only significantly Christian nation in this region of the world, an idea that surely provides many of us Filipino Catholics a sense of import, has been inaccurate for thirteen years now. (I am quite sure that much of the media coverage of Pope Francis’s visit to the Philippines earlier this year involved parrotting this statement.)

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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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