'Lakbayan': Film Review | Tokyo 2018

Courtesy of Busan International Film Festival
A trip through the Philippines’ national soul.

Auteurs Lav Diaz, Brilliante Mendoza and Kidlat Tahimik join forces on an omnibus probing the state of the Philippines.

Three men’s slow trek through the wild unfolding in black and white; a scathing critique of the Philippine elite in the form of a gritty, dramatic re-enactment of a real-life protest march; a funny documentary about a filmmaker’s meetings with local artists as he makes his way across the country in a camper van. These three shorts making up Lakbayan are very representative of their creators’ wildly different approaches in producing politically charged art.

Bringing together slow-cinema stalwart Lav Diaz, social realist Brillante Mendoza and the self-reflexive satirist Kidlat Tahimik, the omnibus is part of the celebrations marking the centenary of Philippine filmmaking. With the Southeast Asian country dogged by problems aplenty – social inequality, natural catastrophes, and an illiberal democracy dominated by a populist and his war on drugs and dissent – Lakbayan, which translates as "journey" in Filipino, is a timely reminder of how cinema (and art in general) can serve as a highway into a nation’s troubled soul.

Unspooling first at Busan, where its screening was followed immediately by a panel discussion titled "Cinema as a Response to the Nation," Lakbayan’s next stop is Tokyo, where Mendoza is president of the international competition jury.

With the pedigrees of its three filmmakers and the recent fascination on the festival circuit with auteur-driven omnibus features, the road ahead for Lakbayan is certainly long, with some festivals perhaps keen to program it alongside the latest efforts from Diaz (Season of the Devil, which also screens in Tokyo) and Mendoza (Alpha, the Right to Kill, a title at Busan).

Having spent his past few years on increasingly explicit allegories about contemporary Filipino history and politics, Diaz’s Lakbayan entry reverts to his earlier, more oblique phase, with his focus falling back on the quotidian existence of the rural underclass. Hugaw (Dirt) tracks three miners as they embark on the tortuous journey home across the sea, over a mountain and, finally, through forests and swamps. Throughout the trip, a hierarchy emerges: the bullying Baldo (Nanding Josef) is the top dog demanding obedience – even if it turns out he made a bad decision – and the portly Paulo (Bart Guingona) is his meek lieutenant.

The youngest of the three, Andres (Don Melvin Boongaling), is the doormat, his lowly position apparent even before the journey begins when Baldo – who is the foreman of the mine – humiliates and then dismisses the young man for refusing to hand over a part of his pay. Just as in many a genre movie, however, the weakling turns out to be the sage and survivor. Trapped among the menacing trees and mired in mud, Baldo and Paulo become increasingly confused about their whereabouts, while Andres sees mystical visions and grows in stature.

It’s hardly a spoiler to reveal not all three will get out of their ordeal alive, but the right question to ask here is not who survives, but why he does and what that means. Is this a fantastical story about the revenge of the downtrodden against their brutal overlords? Or is this power struggle in a forest an analogy of a bigger struggle in a bigger forest more than a century ago, when pro-independence revolutionary leader Andres Bonafacio (note the name) was overthrown and executed by his fellow fighters?

Standing on the opposite end of the stylistic spectrum, Mendoza offers high drama with a message explicitly spelled out. Based on a real incident in 2007, Desfocado (Defocused) revolves around a group of farmers who undertake a mammoth 54-day, 1,100-mile march from the southern Philippines all the way to the capital, Manila, in order to demand the government enact land reforms.

Here, the framing device is Jose (Joem Bascon), a TV cameraman who chances on the farmers while he’s on his way home after losing his job. Fascinated by the determination of this human convoy, Jose decides to film their progress – through which these “interviewees” will tell Jose’s audience (and also Mendoza’s) how previous democratically elected Philippine governments did little to help ordinary farmers wrest control of their land from the country’s handful of landowning clans.

It doesn’t matter if the viewers still don’t get it, as Mendoza inserts frequent onscreen texts to remind us how the downfall of dictator Ferdinand Marcos and the return of democracy has yielded little progress in terms of a fairer deal for the Philippine poor. With Jose’s conversion to the cause, his eventual success in converting his skeptical editors to the story and his own abilities, and a coda about the assassination of protest leader Nanding (Soliman Cruz), Desfocado makes Ken Loach’s films appear subtle and stylized.

Lakbayan ends on a sunnier if no less scathing note. More than 40 years after his directorial debut, Perfumed Nightmare, a road movie about a young cabbie who leaves home and travels abroad with the aim of becoming the first Philippine astronaut, Tahimik hits the road again with Lakaran di Kabayan (Kabayan’s Journey). The documentary centers on Tahimik’s son Kabayan as he relocates from his breezy, hillside hometown of Baguio to the sweaty southern metropolis of Davao in a cute, gaudily orange camper van.

Along the way, Tahimik picks up many stunning images and sharply observed anecdotes. Farmers toil in fields, and tribes engage in rituals that bind them close to their roots and their own set of traditional values. Artists who once struggled for success in the city talk about their contentment in seeking their own enlightenment in the countryside as well as take time to reflect on the history of their own country and develop cosmic psychedelia in their art.

Tahimik himself returns to join his son on the final leg of the journey, and he closes his own circle by visiting actors from his mythical decades-long opus Memories of Overdevelopment. That film also revolves around a journey, in which a Filipino man travels the world with 16th century Spanish explorer Ferdinand Magellan from Asia to Europe and then back again, belying his original status as a slave and turning into a sagely interpreter of culture and colonial power dynamics during his globe-trotting passage.

As Tahimik and his collaborators reflect on their work, the Philippines’ unresolved historical schisms come into view, highlighting Lakbayan’s importance as a trip down painful memory lanes.

Production companies: Solar Pictures
Directors: Lav Diaz (“Hugaw/Dirt”), Brillante Mendoza (“Desfocado/Defocused”), Kidlat Tahimik (“Lakaran di Kabayan/Kabayan’s Journey to Liwanang”)
Cast: Nanding Josef, Bart Guingona, Don Melvin Boongaling, Joem Bascon, Soliman Cruz, Kidlat Tahimik, Kabunyan De Guia
Producers: Wilson Tieng, Brillante Mendoza, Carlo Valendoza
Screenwriters: Lav Diaz, Conviron Altatis, Kidlat Tahimik
Directors of photography: Lav Diaz, Joshua Reyles, Kidlat Tahimik, Kidlat De Guia, Norbert Marchadesch, Abbie S.J. Lara, John Gorre
Production designers: Popo Diaz, Dante Mendoza
Editors: Lav Diaz, Maxine Torre, Kidlat De Guia, Abbie S.J. Lara
Music: Teresa Barroz, Joey Ayala, Popong Landero, Chanum Music, Perry Argel, Momo Dalisay
Sales: Solar Pictures

In Filipino
118 minutes