Talking Movies (Or Why I Stopped Being a ‘Film Critic’)

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I never liked being called a “film critic.” It was a burden that I didn’t want in the first place. It meant that every piece I wrote had to be coated with a thick sludge of seriousness. Thoughts became proper and each turn of phrase sharpened with a sense of responsibility to the reader and, by extension, the filmmaker — if they happened to chance upon the real estate where my words were being farmed out. I tried taking up this challenge a few times, calling on the ghosts of the film critics I admired so I could somehow do their profession justice. My attempts were meager, stuttering efforts on being firm and authoritative. My writing was never meant to hold such weight, a fact that I accepted early on in my short-lived post as a film reviewer. Why should I continue when there were better and more powerful figures out there, more adept and skilled at conveying the experience of watching films? There was just too many of us around, stomping and grunting, thinking we had something significant to say. And when you’re just another voice bellowing out into the wilderness, maybe it’s finally time to stop.

Pelikula was an enjoyable exercise bolstered by the excesses and ambitions of youth. Tumblr was young and we were just a couple of kids who had time to kill, curious about like-minded people online. The climate was of ecstatic discovery. People collaborated, driven by a sense of community, no matter how small it was back then. When we started Pelikula, Tumblr, as a platform began growing, and as year-end film lists were starting to dominate our dashboards, we thought it would be cool to introduce a film blog with a local perspective. We managed to run the blog steadily for three years. Enthusiasm wore out, people got busy and priorities were restacked. The blog gathered dust, pumped back into life by our occasional attempts to resuscitate it. It’s been eight months since we last posted something. Perhaps we’ll get back to it, now that we’ve grown up a little bit, certainly with a bit of editorial experience that was lacking when we first started. But it’s good to see it once in a while, if only as a reminder that we were once kids, thriving on recklessness and bursting with ideas that we thought would change the world.

What’s your greatest achievement? ”Someone asked me that in an interview. I drew a blank. Nothing. It was a simple question and for someone just two years out of college, I should have had an answer. What does it mean? Is it an award from school? Graduating with honors? No. That’s for nerds. What then? Publishing a book! Directing a film. I have none! All the responses streaming around my head — careful enough not to tumble out of my mouth — were the kind of sad replies from someone who hasn’t done sh*t. I wanted to say “co-creating Pelikula” and it should have been because it was “the little film blog that could,” at least in the three years that it was consistently running. Eventually, I was honest enough to say that I hadn’t really “achieved” anything yet. I told the interviewer about my plans of publishing a book on Philippine cinema and how I think life is actually a never-ending quest for the ultimate achievement: enlightenment.

Nope. I’m totally kidding about that last part.

There was a time, when we still had Pelikula, that I would watch an average of two films a day and post my thoughts/reviews online. Writing about films then was almost a reflex for me. Getting copies of Filipino films became a bit of a quest for me. I loved going to Quiapo, looking for classic films by Mike De Leon, Ishmael Bernal, Marilou Diaz Abaya, Celso Ad. Castillo, and even recent Cinemalaya films I didn’t get to watch. I attended film festivals religiously, shelling out hard-earned money for tickets, festival passes and, in some cases, repeated viewings of films I loved.

I don’t get to watch a lot of films these days. It’s funny because I have better access to films than before. There are always plans to watch Slant’s 100 Best Horror Films or Indiewire’s Best Films of the Decade(So Far), but I almost always end up sleeping on weekends or binge-watching a TV show that I’ve already watched ten times over. Film festivals now sound like a chore, especially the prospect of sitting through three bad films just to get to a good one.

More than anything else, it’s just the deluge of deadlines and the constant stream of responsibilities that get in the way. It’s hard to appreciate a film when your brain has been turned to mush by five days of work, which is probably why I turn to mindless/light entertainment when I feel exhausted. You’d have to chain me to a chair and stick an IV drip into my arm to make me watch another arthouse film.

Originally published in The Philippine Star (August 8, 2015)

Future Shock

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Life in your late 20s is essentially just waltzing around the outskirts of being a thirtysomething. You know you’re definitely getting old when hitting the big Three Oh is just fraught with terrifying tales of adulthood and responsibilities. If it weren’t for healthcare and technology, our life expectancy wouldn’t have allowed our leisurely exploits to evade marriage and knowing what a 401K really is. Now, I know I’m starting to sound like a First Generation iPod preaching to a choir of Apple Watches about the hardscrabble life during the Pre-Spotify era — in a section that trumps all things “young” — but as I inch closer to turning 30, life isn’t exactly a BuzzFeed listicle anymore. Suddenly, I’m Hilary Duff burying the best of my Lizzie McGuire days and jumping into a show about a 40-year-old pretending to be in her 20s. Yikes.

Like everyone else my age —who once were kids partying hard at Cubao X, consuming blinding amounts of alcohol during gigs, and slamming with other bodies in Ang Bandang Shirley’s “mushpits” — our weekly cavalcade of emotions include: paranoia, neediness, self-loathing, and a constant need for attention. As I go on, scrounging for the dregs of my youth, I realize that these fits of madness are already familiar to me, this relentless pursuit of self-interest, the aversion to being around people younger than I am, and the bursts of homicidal thoughts when things don’t go your way. I have become Jenna Maroney, 30 Rock’s embodiment of “self-indulgent narcissism.”

30 Rock was a strange show. It was too smart, too self-aware, and too absurd for a network sitcom. “I feel like we made a lot of good episodes of the kind of show that usually gets canceled,” series star and creator Tina Fey told Rolling Stone in 2013. “The kind where there’s 20 episodes and ‘only me and my hipster friends know about it.’ That part’s still true. But we made 140 of them!” It had six years of dwindling viewership (its premiere had eight million viewers then steadily declined each season until it was only watched by three million people by the time it ended in 2013), critical acclaim and awards (it won the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series thrice), a stellar crowd of cameos and guest stars, such as Oprah Winfrey, Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, and two of the biggest male TV leads, Mad Men’s Jon Hamm and Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston — both cast as idiots. At the center of the universe of this comedy show within a comedy show — or so she thinks — is Jane Krakowski’s Jenna Maroney, a washed-up actress clinging to her youth and fame.

In the first few seasons of 30 Rock, Jenna was merely an insecure actress who does things for attention and was jealous of babies for their soft skin. As the show went on, she became a high-strung psychopath who insults kids for their singing abilities (“Listening to you sing is like eating steak out of a dumpster” and “Go jump back up your mother!” are some of her memorable Simon Cowell-style insults) and only reacts to conversations if she hears her name in them. Jenna has the hallmarks of your garden variety—I will only use this word once in this entire article—millennial, an “unceasing onslaught of dysfunction” in constant need of approval.  Her narcissism knows no bounds;  she actually marries her own drag impersonator (played by Will Forte) and interrupts any form of singing around her only to prove that she is better (Krakowski is actually a Tony Award winner).

Jenna knows she’s a star, a self-entitled brat who sets up her own intervention (“Everyone shout out words that describe my beauty,” and in response, someone yells “Fading!”) and her attempts at learning life lessons prove to be nonsensical because they always end up being about her (“I’m not gonna be pushed aside and forgotten, like that time at my sister’s funeral.”). All this actually sounds like a regular day at my social media feed, what with all the needless one-upmanship, like-baiting selfies, and gratuitous displays of well-curated lives being lived. Hannah Horvath isn’t the trainwreck and cautionary tale of a generation, it’s Jenna Maroney. She is the devolved, hyper-sexualized version of anyone in this generation’s age bracket, a vision of a not-so-distant future when all our quirks and tics just degrade to annoying traits and hindrances to developing into a functional and emotionally healthy human being. Unless, like Jenna, you just cling to fame (stick to that blog!) and try desperately to be a D-list celebrity.

The Wooly Mammoth: The Bataan Nuclear Power Plant

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Anyone who’s watched enough movies would tell you that walking through the insides of the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant feels much like a tour of a horror film set. Its dark hallways, abandoned rooms, and crumbling equipment echo an atmosphere of dread—a similar kind of terror that cloaked the country when the plant was supposed to start operating in 1986 amid many questions about its safety. At the time, the plant had been in construction for a decade (although it was briefly halted in 1979 to check for defects brought about by the issues in the Three Mile Island incident in the United States), and it cost the government around $2 billion. Built as a response to the 1973 oil shock, it was envisioned as an alternative to the petroleum dependence of the country. Today, in the midst of the looming energy crisis, the mothballed giant remains as a symbol of wasted potential.

Looking at the vast expanse of the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant, all 389 hectares of it, it’s astonishing to see that there are only about 13 people left to look after its slumbering shell. On a bright, though sweltering, afternoon, the site is something to behold: tended landscapes, manicured greenery, and the coastline make for a stunning background to the plant’s grey behemoth. A small, two-story office sits outside the main building, where I, along with a writer, photographer, and his assistant, set up camp for a shoot we were producing for Rogue. A brief overview was given before the tour inside the plant. The advantages of nuclear power were outlined as well as a general description of how the plant was supposed to be working, if only it wasn’t shut down by President Corazon Aquino, following the panic triggered by the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986.

Inside, only a few lights illuminate the floors and network of steel pipes that crawl throughout the walls and ceilings. A few guards roam around to secure the area, and just in case someone was stupid enough to nick a few things here and there. Hulking machinery and equipment — all of which were supposed to be state-of-the-art in the 80s — are unused, obscured by the superior technology that now exists. Tags mark knobs and handles, preservation labels left by inspectors from BNPP’s South Korean sister plant (meaning they both share the same schematics and features), who studied the plant for recommissioning, in the event the government decides to get the plant up and running, a move that would cost around $1 billion.

At the heart of the plant is the massive nuclear reactor. Protected by a domed structure made of 1 m-thick concrete and 1.5 m of steel, it was supposed to provide 625-megawatts of clean energy. The reactor has since been dismantled, inoperable without the fuel, which has been sold to Siemens in 1997. According to our guide, no radioactive material exists in the site.

Nuclear energy hasn’t been the easiest alternative to sell to the people. It is a topic weighed on by years of fears, accidents, and bad examples that give it a bad name to this day. NAPOCOR has been keeping the plant on its wings, with some advocates hoping that there would be an administration brave and smart enough to create a nuclear energy policy for the country. A huge chunk of the energy we consume comes from plants powered by coal, a resource that we still import from other countries. We are one of the countries with the most expensive power rates in Asia, higher than Japan which has used nuclear energy — and survived despite the Fukushima meltdown in 2011.

A tangled web of bureaucracy and politicking has also kept the plant from running. It still stands as a Marcos legacy (which is why President Noynoy Aquino wouldn’t even touch it), an expensive mistake to some that should have never been built in the first place. It took the country over 30 years to repay the cost of construction and still consumes P40 million in annual maintenance funds. And all that we have to show for it is a grey giant, dormant on a lonely hill overlooking the sea, occasionally wakened by group tours, turning the plant into an attraction.

Read the full story on the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant in Rogue’s June 2015 issue now on newsstands and zinio.com/rogue.

The Economy of Words: On Celebrity Profiles

Here’s the thing about celebrity profiles: they’re deathly boring. At least in Hollywood, writers actually get to spend time — even several days — with their subjects (though still sanctioned by the celeb’s PR team). They get to ride with them in their cars, maybe get into an accident (Taylor Swift, Rolling Stone2012), spend a day in the zoo (Matt Damon, GQ 2011), or a sit-down interview at their childhood home (Lady Gaga, Vanity Fair 2012). The environment provides the context, rather than just deftly navigating around the boundaries of what should and what should not be asked. More often than not, Hollywood’s A-listers make for an interesting profile because writers get to do stuff with them. There’s an establishment of trust, that they will bare their soul out, ideally unguarded, opening up a new facet of their personality that hasn’t been seen by everyone else.

Beyoncé’s profile though in Vogue’s mammoth of a September issue (832 pages this year), doesn’t have a sliver of the actual Beyoncé in it, at least besides the photographs in the accompanying spread. In place of an interview is a piece by Pulitzer Prize-winner Margo Jefferson about the whole Beyoncé phenomenon. Queen B, it turns out, hasn’t answered a direct question in more than a year (she has only spoken in writing or taped appearances).

“This is unusual for Vogue,” The Times wrote. “A review of five years’ worth of cover articles indicates that she is the only celebrity cover star not to submit to some type of interview (and on the occasion of her two previous Vogue covers, in 2009 and in 2013, she did). When models appear on the cover, as in the case of last September’s issue, they typically do not get the same profile treatment, but even the ‘Instagirls’ of September 2014 — Cara Delevingne, Karlie Kloss, et al. — answered a few questions online. Not only did Michelle Obama agree to an interview when she appeared on the cover in 2013, she even brought along her husband.”

Maybe there is something to be said of Beyoncé’s choice to decline (as of this writing, we can only speculate the reason behind it since her camp hasn’t issued anything yet). The whole Bey story has been told many times (not to mention the sphere of influence she wields through social media) and perhaps she felt there isn’t really something new to say, choosing instead to let her work do the speaking for her.

Local showbiz is a different circus altogether— everything has to be micromanaged and PR-ed to death. Everyone has to play nice and by the rules. I’ve had countless celebrities interviewed over the years and most of these were merely 30 to 40-minute conversations while they’re doing their hair or makeup. They’re just being profiled to promote a TV show or a movie and an in-depth interview should be the least of my worries (the photo will be the one shared on social media anyway and not the article). But I still have to care because first of all, my byline will go with it, and second I should at least think of the fans who will actually want to know more about their beloved actor or actress.

I’ve had the dumbest answers thrown at me and then made more palatable when they finally hit print. These are usually the PR-sanctioned answers that go along the lines of “Masaya naman po siyakatrabaho” or, if pitted against another actor “Wala naman rivalry. Friends po kami. I’m not really asking for life-changing quotes but maybe soundbites that have more substance, that make the subject look like they’re not just some pretty face on the TV screen. I might have asked the wrong questions but seriously, you pretty much zone out after the first few showbiz answers that you’ll just want to be done with it. There’s not much story on sets anyway. It’s mostly a waiting game for the scene to set up. Someone will get yelled at, tempers will flare but eventually, these events will fold and will just be whispered as gossip, attached to the personal myths of the respective celebrities.

Some interviews don’t happen at all. I’ve written about a model for a magazine’s cover story with just scraps of quotes through email and WhatsApp exchanges. Scheduling conflicts are a bitch and sometimes questions are just sent to their manager and the subject relays it with just bits and pieces that can’t even be properly called answers. Others are brief and succinct with just one-sentence replies that make you want to claw your eyes out. I’ve had an actress read out to me the rules of what I can and cannot ask her. Some even answer condescendingly, as if you’re not worth their time. These things really happen and usually you just, to quote a robot from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, “activate shrug mode.”

Interestingly, the more gripping interviews are with the ones you can call “legitimate” actors, those who actually have an insight on their craft; people who have actually lived and have tales of success and failures that they’re willing to expose. It’s not actually the interview that they care about but the meat of the story that they will share. It’s hard when you’re just a few years into your career, there’s really not much happening (unless you’re someone like Jasmine Curtis Smith who’s had a number of acclaimed films since her debut). But when you’re a character actor who’s played the different permutations of psychotic murders, snarky in-laws, supportive parents, or, like Joel Torre, Jose Rizal’s different on-screen versions, your profile can be a wealth of stories that are engaging and stimulating.

Originally published in The Philippine Star (August 29, 2015)

Listen to the Math

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I remember it was a Scorpions cassette tape that hinted at the musical connection I would share with my father. It was around 1998 and like any other kid going through puberty—an era when MTV was still king and modems noisily signaled to the rest of the world for a decent internet connection—I was neck deep into pop music. I thumbed through newsprint song magazines that had chorded song lyrics and months-old news from faraway lands. Other kids had Teen Beat, J-14 or Smash Hits, I had Solid Gold, Smash, and Radio Romance. My meager allowance wasn’t enough to buy cassette tapes so I resorted to recording songs on the radio and (on TV) to form my own mix tapes; a mash of late 90’s OPM, Top 40 staples, and every Celine Dion song I could find on the radio. In this spectrum, a German hard rock band is an unlikely fit. But that night, when my dad came home with the Scorpion’s Gold, it was my inauguration to the halls of Tito/Daddy Rock.

I assume living in a house with two of my uncles, who listened to music using an old, hulking box of a music system (the one with a record player, cassette player, and radio), also helped usher me into the power rock and ballads of the 70s and 80s. The late 90s became the playing ground for local artists to dabble on “retro” music: Jose Mari Chan covered songs from John Denver, post-Mara Clara era Judy Ann Santos relied on an Eddie Peregrina song for her self-titled debut, and Regine Velazquez released R2K. A dusty songbook from the early 90s helped me sort through all these covers and retro albums. Almost every song from that time was either of reckless abandon or impenetrable sadness: two things that spoke closely to my adolescent heart. It was the latter that I mostly gravitated to, the lonely call leading me to artists like Bob Dylan, The Carpenters, James Taylor, and Simon and Garfunkel—music that would later on become an integral part of my life.

Years after, stuck in post-college limbo, I agreed to take on a nightly radio show that played folk music—my hometown’s companion to dads, titos, and PUV drivers navigating the lonely hours. For my first night on board, the folk rock CD I bought my dad a few years back became my atlas. I mixed Jim Croce, Peter Paul and Mary, and Gordon Lightfoot with the indie folk I’ve come to love such as Sufjan Stevens, Iron and Wine, and Fleet Foxes; music that I brought home to my dad who silently approved of our shared musical inclinations.

But of course, he wanted me to pursue my profession and saw this stint as a bump on the road. This brief period of unemployment (I hardly consider the radio show a job since it paid shit) put a strain in our relationship; here was his son fresh off college who wakes up at night and spends the rest of his time online writing and looking for more songs to add in his playlist. He told me to look for a job almost every day but I wanted to bide my time until something worth settling down to came along. I guess the sight of my lazy ass bumming around his house wasn’t his idea of adulthood. But there was the music. I’d make him listen to my newfound gems and he would point me to more of the music that he loved, the loving strains of guitars and husky tones of Americana forming a warm atmosphere that pulled us closer.

I left for Manila a year after, working in a newspaper that I knew he read daily. He would send a text message asking me if I had an article published that day and if I had, he’d buy the newspaper and show my article to his friends, pointing to my byline rather proudly. For the first two years of my work at the Special Projects section, I was put in charge of the Father’s Day special, an opportunity that I seized to subtly give my father a nod every chance I get.

I write this as I listen to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Live from New York City,” 1967, holed up in my box of a room, my dad a distance away. “We speak of things that matter, the words that must be said,” Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel sing in The Dangling Conversation. My dad and I are never one to sit down and talk, just talk. But when we listen to the songs we love, the songs that we’ve pinned down most of our lives on, it’s more than enough to say whatever it is that we want to say to each other.

Found Stories: Brillante Mendoza

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Note: This article was supposed to appear in The Phillippine Star around December 2012, in time for Thy Womb’s MMFF run. I have no idea though if this article ever saw print. 

Brillante Mendoza merely laughed when I told him that his film Kinatay, which won him the Best Director award in the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, has become a benchmark in depictions of graphic violence on screen. In Slant Magazine’s review of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, John Semley cited Mendoza’s film in contrast with Bigelow’s violent scenes of torture. “The scenes are disturbing, but by cinema’s post-Kinatay or The Passion of the Christ standards, Zero Dark Thirty‘s graphic incitements are slight,” Semley wrote. Mendoza somehow finds this amusing, seeing how Kinatay has earned him a degree of notoriety in world cinema. Granted, the film had shocking displays of violence but Mendoza has since ventured on films that are less repugnant, particularly in his film Thy Womb.

Kinatay is perceived to be very violent and Thy Womb is [about] unconditional love,” Mendoza says. “Sa akin naman, nakikita mo yung pagta-tackle natin sa mga istorya, not just because gusto lang natin magpakita ng violence. If there’s an interesting story, yun ang mas tinitignan ko. With Thy Womb, affected ako when I first saw the place. Once kasi na-catch yung attention mo, yun ang gusto kong ikwento. The way I felt during that moment, yun yung gusto kong i-capture sa film.”

Thy Womb premiered at the Venice Film Festival last September and competed in the festival’s main slate against world cinema greats like Terrence Malick, Brian De Palma, and Marco Belocchio. The film has since earned accolades and citations from critics around the world and is currently making rounds of film festivals. This December, Thy Womb is part of the Metro Manila Film Festival, the same festival that rejected it in the first place until another film pulled out of the competition, way after Thy Womb’s success abroad. But Mendoza is more than happy with the film’s selection to the MMFF, seeing this as an opportunity to share his films with Filipinos around the country.

A different perspective

The film also marks the return of Nora Aunor to the big screen. She stars as Shaleha, an infertile midwife who searches for a second wife for her husband so he can have a child. Thy Womb is starkly different from Mendoza’s previous films. Blue skies not only mark a momentary respite for the film but it is actually a reflection of the Tawi-Tawi island that the film is set in. Mendoza used this film as an opportunity to tell a different side of the people of South.

“The first time I went to Tawi-tawi was for me a great discovery of the place. I knew little about Tawi-tawi,” Mendoza recalls. “Like most of us here from Luzon na napaka-minimal lang ng alam natin. Ang alam lang natin diyan, violent yung lugar. We tend to have a lot of misconceptions and we tend to generalize Mindanao as a whole. This is a beautiful island. They Christians and the Muslims coexist peacefully. In the same community, from different tribes pa, you will see mosques and chapels in one street. So sabi ko if I’m gonna make a story here, dapat kasama itong community na ito, dapat ma-capture ito hindi lang yung story na hindi lang nakikita yung lugar. In my films kasi, the place is bigger than the ego. Whenever we tell stories of people, people are just part of the big community and somehow represents the community but this is basically the story of the place.”

Working with the superstar

Inspired by a true story of a woman from Tawi-Tawi, Thy Womb’s harrowing story of self-sacrifice and selflessness needed a mature and experienced actress to tackle the role. Mendoza thought of Aunor right away and the decision was met with a degree of negativity. Aunor is said to be a difficult actress to work with but Mendoza proved otherwise during the filming of Thy Womb.

“With Nora, kahit naman big [star] siya, siguro there’s a reason why she’s [called] the superstar, kung bakit siya nandito sa stature niya ngayon, because alam niya kung kalian siya magluluko-luko, kung kalian siya magpapakatino, kung kalian siya gagwa ng ganito, ng ganyan. She plays everything by heart, by instinct, and alam niya kapag napipinpoint niya yung tao. That’s how I read her. So when I worked with her siguro nakita niya rin yun so wala kaming problema. Kapag nakikita niya na you are really serious with what you’re doing, nakikita rin niya yung commitment ng mga actors, ng mga staff and crew, siguro nadadala na rin siya doon,” Mendoza explains.

A new experience

Filming Thy Womb opened Mendoza to a new experience. He spent months of research and immersion in Tawi-Tawi to somehow tell the story of its people, culture, and environment, through Shaleha’s story. He didn’t want the film to end up as a touristy photoplay or a haphazardly told tale about the South. He took his time in making the film knowing that he is dealing with a culture that is rich and captivating. He even made a cultural event the centerpiece of the film.

With each film that he makes, Mendoza is bent not just on showcasing our culture but also our capabilities as a filmmaking nation. “There’s such a thing as a Filipino filmmaker doing it in a Filipino way na hindi pwedeng gawin sa iba at hindi nagagawa ng iba. Whether we like it or not, iba tayong gumawa ng pelikula, dahil nasa kultura natin yun as Filipinos. People just love to share, they just love to help. Kultura natin yung tumulong. YungSige wag mo na akong bayaran’, ‘Sige pang-taxi na lang’. You can’t do that abroad. These are the things that I share and I’m proud. I’m proud that I’m a Filipino filmmaker. ”

Apocalypse Now and Forever: Lav Diaz’s Norte

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How do you end a world consumed by its own corruption? In Lav Diaz’s Norte: Hangganan ng Kasaysayan, Fabian (Sid Lucero), a law school dropout, sees no point in continuing the morality imposed by societal conventions on a dying civilization. Fabian goes on to ramble about his philosophy to his professors — the coffee shop they’re in being the most innocuous venue for such discussion — how the negation of truth and everything society perceives as “wrong” is also an act of liberation in itself. After minutes of discussion, he then proceeds to borrow rent money from his audience. Fabian postulates his ideations as somewhat that of a radical’s, someone who is drunk on the power of living, enough to put his own theories to their own destructive course.

It is here that Diaz freely plays with Dostoyevski’s Crime and Punishment — the Russian author being a life-long obsession in Diaz’s filmography — transposing the Russian psychological warfare into the dust of a third-world setting. Fabian is Raskolnikov, Dostoyevski’s handsome dilettante whose loathing towards normalcy and ethics is the spark that sets off an upheaval of another world. High on the sway of his own call to arms, Fabian goes on to murder his pawnbroker (Mae Paner, devoid of her Juana Change contraptions) and her daughter, launching into ruin not only of his own but of another parallel universe. In Norte, the fall is taken by Joaquin (Archie Alemania, far from his comedic comfort zone), a DVD peddler accused of the pawnbroker’s murder, his ties to her include a mountain of debt and a short burst of a tantrum after she refused to return his wife’s pawned ring.

Fabian goes on about his life as if the act of killing is a necessary recourse of existence. He further isolates himself from the rest of the world, even from his closest friends. Joaquin’s family, on the other hand, suffers from the shattered life they are consigned to living. Joaquin’s wife, Eliza (the quietly powerful Angeli Bayani), tries to make ends meet, selling vegetables in a rickety cart around their town while Joaquin desperately lives his saintly disposition inside the prison, never crossing boundaries and keeping his mouth shut if needed. This is a set-up for a dreary exposition into squalor and defeat, but Diaz, never one to indulge in such games, opts instead to steer his four-hour film (which runs like breeze even for a millennial attention span) into an astonishing study of madness and its accompanying instruments.

Norte is Diaz’s first film in color for over a decade, and his first working with material co-written by another playwright, Rody Vera. The film still bears Diaz’s distinctive mark, its blood coursing through familiar themes that the filmmaker has closely explored in his career. Norte only occupies a unique place in his filmography, being his first Cannes Film Festival entry and one of his most lauded films to date, landing on top yearend critics list such as Sight and Sound, Artforum, Sense of Cinema, and La Internacional Cinéfila.

Praised for its epic scope and intimate look at the lives caught in time’s undertow, Norte offers up a relevant response to how our country has gradually been victim to our crimes, even those that we commit to the ones we hold dear.

Sumpa ang mabuhay, Joaquin. Dahil hindi natin hawak ang buhay,” a character ominously proclaims, the specter of death hanging like a palpable scent in the air the characters breathe in. Norte is never happy, despite the stark blue of the skies that follows its characters. Its novel-like length gives Diaz the freedom to explore his characters in more detail, allowing high-caliber actors such as Lucero, Alemania, Bayani, and the ever-reliable Mailes Kanapi, as Fabian’s Bible-thumping sister, to sink their teeth deeper into the turmoil. That Diaz’s direction allows his actors to roam freely into their characters’ psyche adds only to the film’s rattling thrum — the sound that echoes with the fury of our cries.