JPaul S. Manzanilla
A series of mysterious events is happening in a remote barrio in the Philippines. A person is found dead with bite marks said to be made by an aswang (viscera-sucking beast). Cows are hacked to death. Howling sounds are heard from the wilderness. Houses are burned down. At this stage of the film, fear is not yet felt or articulated; only a later retelling of mishaps will explain the presumed absence of a cause, thereby conveying mystery and, later, fear of the unknown.
Once again, Lav Diaz takes us on a journey to history. This time around, it’s the years shortly before Martial Law when the country is on the verge of a catastrophe.
Diaz’s art of slow cinema gives viewers the chance to think and feel through the narrative he carefully crafts, unpressured by swift direction that waylays seemingly inconsequential actions to the detriment of understanding. The camera keeps hold of scenes for a long time and so allows contemplation—a technique that reorders the persistence of vision and the cognitive capacities of spectators. In traditional cinema, reasoning tries to catch up with the rapid current of images and one only ably examines after “finishing” the film. Three long minutes is devoted to the boat ride of Itang who’s brooding over on how she and her sister can survive. Several long scenes portray the mentally ill Joselina. Farmhand Sito and adopted son Hakob blend with the foliage, becoming distinguishable only after they make some movements.
Telling what happened or might have happened is the function of history; telling what could or is supposed to happen is the occupation of both fiction and history. Diaz’s opus belongs to the latter category as he imaginatively reconstructs from what was before the beginning of the end or the nightmare that is Martial Law. At the start, the filmmaker discloses that the story comes from memory and is based on true events. The characters are based on real people. And we see that truth is the casualty when everyone avoids confronting the root cause of their misery. Sito fabricates a story on the origin of Hakob, who elicits sympathy for his determination to meet his parents in the far-away island of Culion, because they are said to be quarantined lepers living in the land of the forgotten. Itang coerces her sister Joselina to conduct faith healing sessions to earn money. Parish priest Fr. Guido delivers a sermon that covers up the real cause of the disappearance of Joselina and Itang just to pacify the community’s anxiety. Winemaker Tony rapes Joselina and invents a story of their love affair.
In the end, it seems that the town is fated to experience both the answer and the cause of their problem. Everything falls into place as what is anticipated finally happens. All the unexplained occurrences – conditions of deprivation and depravity, in fact – are used to justify the imposition of military rule. The armed forces of the state, possessing the legitimate use of violence, arrive on the scene and transform the community, but not without opposition. It is instructive how local knowledge is used to debunk the excuses of military presence by the army officer aptly named Lieutenant Perdido (English translation: lost). Locals ask why classrooms will not be built when the military facilitates the construction of roads and bridges and Sito asserts that the place is peaceful prior to the arrival of the army. Fr. Guido vehemently objects on the sudden restriction of movement imposed on him and his flock. The ambulant rumormonger peddler Heding (legally Helen) who even concocted a tale that Joselina is the daughter of a kapre and is the source of the town’s misfortunes is, after all, a military spy who facilitates the arrival of the soldiers. The recurrent mention of the University of the Philippines demonstrates that the educational institution is not only feeder to the rebel movement but to the counterinsurgency organization as well. Marcos’ declaration of Martial Law, aired through an unseen radio, is actually only a formal presentation of what is being enacted all along.
Thickly describing situations – from the cosmos of customs and rituals to the complementarity of folk belief and Roman Catholic religion and from the terrors of counterrevolution to the quotidian character of agrarian life – Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon is simply astonishing in how it reveals the prelude to a nightmare in Philippine history. The trauma of Martial Law is delicately attended to by Diaz in this painstaking elaboration of what is supposed to be the condition of our misery.
JPaul S. Manzanilla is engaged in research on the histories of photography, cinema, and television in the Philippines.