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14 September 2014

Lav Diaz’s “Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon” (From What Is Before): a TIFF Film Review

Reviewed by Roghadal Saint-Michel
Brun Film Correspondent at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival


Warning: Spoiler alert

I have to admit that I had reservations venturing into another Lav Diaz film. The last time I sat through his 11-hour opus, “Ebolusyon ng Pamilyang Pilipino,” I felt that I "evolved" in not wanting to watch another gratuitously long film. I am all for long takes if they are warranted it but not when I am subjected to them just for the heck of it.

Thirty minutes to Diaz’s new film, it is very clear that he himself has evolved. The cinematography in crisp black and white is akin to any Ansel Adams photography. If the famous photographer had gone to the Philippines and photographed parts of the country, his work would have resembled this film. Not a single shot was wasted. I have never seen rural Philippines photographed so beautifully.

The long takes are present. I casually timed the first few scenes and a good 80 seconds of footage is used before he moves to the next shot. Scenes linger, yes, but it is so well composed that you feel like you are staring right into a photograph and admiring every detail.

The first two hours of the film is spent introducing the characters. They are all taken from the vast vista of rural Philippines. The camera is static from a distance while movement onscreen closes into the foreground. The result is mesmerizing in grandeur and motive. The black and white cinematography and the stationary camera is a clever tool in telling the story of what lies behind that thick foliage. After a shot is introduced, your eyes are trained after a while to spot any movement on the screen. It takes longer than a few seconds before anyone comes out of it. The characters initially blend with it until they move.

This is a film about the evils of Martial Law, and what it had done even to the most remote places in the Philippines. The story is so blatant and pervasive, as thick as the forests that nobody dares to confront. The characters in the film just coalesced with it. They survived with folk beliefs but the Marcos government cunningly manipulated these same beliefs to control the people, or so it thought. 

The story dramatizes the sad plight of the characters trying to make do of what is presented to them.  The Church, as represented by the priest, tries to do damage control by manipulating the truth. But when the truth is seen in the eyes of a child and through true love, one has to look away. The real tragedy of this event, just like Martial Law, is that everyone knows and feels the presence of danger but everyone turns a blind eye. The demonic event is perpetuated and chaos simmers beneath the breezy facade.

RATING: 4.5/5
Notwithstanding some unnatural acting from incidental characters in the film, newcomer Karenina Haniel’s performance as an intellectually disabled sister is commendable. I have never seen someone so believable; it hurts. Her wailing and physicality are beyond words. 

Hazel Orencio, fresh from winning the Best Actress at Locarno, could not be faulted. Roeder Camanag , Joel Saracho , Perry Dizon and Reynan Abcede were all very memorable for their respective roles. And who can miss Miles Kanapi's turn as the rumormonger peddler.  However, the most ominous character in the whole film is the location. It is as if the gods kissed this part of the Philippines. It is raining in most scenes and the turbulent wind is always present. The crashing waves in the rocky shores act in unison with the actors as if they were all divinely planned.

Five hours into the movie and you are sucked into the dilemma of the small barrio. You are transfixed to the grandeur and mystery of the locale. And at ninety percent capacity of the AGO Jackman Hall Theatre in Toronto, except for a few who would go for very quick bathroom breaks, not one left. This is Filipino history that the world is riveted to watch; unfortunately, only few Filipinos were in attendance.

The success of this so-called "slow cinema" is that a typical moviegoer is being liberated from the 2-hour formula of storytelling. One learns to sit and enjoy, as one critic said, almost six hours of pure cinema.

I will boldly say that this is Diaz's love letter to the Philippines and one pivotal scene sums it all. Uncle Sito and his childhood friend Horacio, the poet, discussed how their barrio has turned into “the Town of the Dead.” The poet said that he travelled far to learn how to write but then he realized that what he writes is still about “where he is from.” He is not just talking about himself but about all of us. We all react differently when times get tough. Most of us leave and some stay. However, we try and we still long for where we were before and we still can as Horacio said.

Bravo Lav, you did us proud. Thank You.


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