Strumming the Void: Notes on Dwein Ruedas Baltazar’s Oda sa Wala (2018)

16 Aug

Christian Tablazon

At its heart, the title Oda sa Wala already announces a perverse, desiring subject enfolded in a long and fraught enactment of apostrophe. The film opens with what is probably one of the most arresting and thoughtful first scenes in recent cinema: a lingering take of winged insects drawn in a graceful flurry to the ceiling light while an old, melancholic Chinese song (what initially seems a non-diegetic tune) plays in the background. The shot is later revealed to be Sonya’s POV, a woman in her 40s lying wide awake and alone in bed, immersed in the same song that turns out to be playing through her earphones from a Walkman. The door creaks and a disembodied hand slips into the crack to switch off the light in the room. Sonya waits for a while in the dark before getting up to turn the ceiling lamp back on. She returns to bed and resumes listening to the song, but the player gets jammed right away. She opens her Walkman and finds the tape spilled out of its cassette. The drone of bugs outside accompanies the silence in the house. The seeming ghost, we will later realize, is Sonya’s father, just lodged wordlessly in the next room.

The father has been turned into a phantom sign, reduced into a fragment without context, an incomplete figure without speech, absent and present at once in the same house with her. Sonya is alone with and in spite of him, throughout the solitary passage of night, just as long as the nights that came before. Besides her winged and incidental companions, she is also kept company by a conjured voice that is only as spectral, that of a foreign woman, now probably dead, singing in another language, recorded from a different place and time, a facsimile of a human voice crooning from an obsolete cassette tape, a serenade long gone returning from the other side, mechanically invoked through a handheld apparatus. It is also a disembodied voice, whose words Sonya protractedly hums and mouths in this moment of strange communion with insects and ghosts.

vlcsnap-2019-08-16-10h30m48s656(Screengrab from Oda sa Wala‘s trailer)

The numinous beauty in this commonplace and transient moment that she witnesses amid her desolation, the music drifting from a distant time and place into an almost ethereal sight of these fascinating alate forms—the winged iteration of their kind—these ephemeral lives, and their mysterious attraction to light for which even science still could not fully account…. With this opening scene, the silent and ambiguous gaps and gestures that protract the visible, Sonya’s conscious reality, and the film’s narrative, not only build a decisive atmosphere within which to unfold this strange and excruciating meditation on loneliness and acquaint us with the lyric and oblique tendencies of Baltazar’s evocations, but also situates the cardinal motifs of haunting and return, strange unsuspected visits, artifact and disintegration, darkness and light, disembodiment and embodiment and surrogate incarnations, and the fleeting little joys and glimpses of numen that seep through the cracks of ennui and terror. 

Caught between dead mothers and men who consistently fail her, she feels invisible and unwanted, a subject on the verge of being neutered and extinct at once: Sonya, a soltera and no longer young, lone and all-around mortician at her family-owned funeral home of over 50 years, struggling to keep at bay the drawing impoundment of their property by a ruthless loan shark who is perennially sapping their resources. She is trapped with her languishing father in the soulless, day-to-day humdrum in their large, decrepit house, and their lives are almost determined by the castrating loss of the wife and mother in the wake of her passing. A gloomy, womblike and pluvial atmosphere looms and persists about the house. The dead clock, the phased out media, the sheer gesture of playing same old song, on loop, over and over sums up limboid inhabitation suspended in time. The radio that, despite Sonya’s repeated attempts, could not process any signal, amplifies the insularity of their lives in their silent and cavernous home. Marietta Subong’s deft and visceral portrayal of Sonya steadily unravels a brutal and incommensurable solitude, and renders, with utmost empathy and dignity, how the perverse can sometimes shed light on our humanity, how the perverse itself is the mark of humanity, the individual human sign she carries.

vlcsnap-2019-08-16-10h30m27s261(Screengrab from Oda sa Wala‘s trailer)

Several times in the film, Sonya would be listening to the same song in the beginning, a quaint and bittersweet 1950s rendition of “Jasmine Flower”, a Chinese folk song, which actually bookends the film. Possibly, for Sonya, it is a tender remnant from happier days, a reminder perhaps of a Chinese-Filipino mother or from when she was younger and alive, or an intimate souvenir between her parents conceived when they were young passionate lovers, a hand-me-down tune she plays over and over, frequently spoiled by the stubborn cassette tape getting stuck and tangled, a flimsy bequest now literally unravelling into unusability. The lush invocations of this song starkly contrasts with the cauterized dimension of Sonya’s life, and most so when she hums and mouths her slurred version of the Mandarin lines while caught in her reverie, her eyes cast distantly upon the emptiness before her.

Amid the Orientalia of conflated Chinese and Japanese ornaments in her study, we see an old, yellowed poster advertisement that says, “See CHINA by PLANE”. The slogan compounds the song’s signification as an impossible place, an ever-elsewhere for which the protagonist longs. The narrative thus positions the song as the last bastion of her sensual habitude, alongside the few other little retreats she affords herself that sustain her person: the shabby piano the loan shark takes away, her mother’s photograph, the prospect of being able to one day travel to China as hinted by the poster, smoking cigarettes, buying her own birthday cake and the blissful dancing that ensues over lunch, and, of course, her brief encounters with Elmer, the young taho vendor whom she fancies and anticipates every morning. 

Sonya’s retreat from her seemingly embalmed state takes a more aggressive turn in the form of a mysterious corpse, a woman most likely around the same age as her dead mother, that finds its way into their home one very late evening. The corpse  in itself is ambiguous in its being n/either subject n/or object, an uncanny figure that blurs the distinction between self and other, setting up a rigodon of ghostly functions: as itself, as a set of analogs, as surrogate, as Sonya’s alter ego, and as a portent to her fate. 

The dead turns out auspicious, and Sonya eventually decides restitute her mother through the surrogate corpse, fecundating their household and the relationship between daughter and father. In one particular bedtime scene, the Chinese song she obsessively listens to in various instances in the film presently functions as the interface and buffer between two simulations by Sonya: the memory of her dead mother and its embodiment in the surrogate corpse of this unknown woman.

vlcsnap-2019-08-16-10h31m32s681(Screengrab from Oda sa Wala‘s trailer)

The premise of Oda sa Wala easily conjures a similar trope in García Márquez: the arrival of a strange and exquisite corpse—The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World—in the lives of the inhabitants of a small coastal village forever alters the people and brings forth an unprecedented Spring and flowering that their village could never have otherwise imagined. However, while the corpse in Oda sa Wala catalyzes a chain of auspicious and bizaare events that will eventually fulfill Sonya’s fate, one realizes that the role the mysterious dead woman plays here is a brief distraction, a reprieve, allowing Sonya and her father a momentary relese from the limboid tautology of their day-to-day existence, before the Void fully encroaches upon them and the corpse finally reveals itself to be the Void, before the world swiftly and compeletely falls away to evince a new order. “One curious property of the cuttlefish is that, once dead, its body begins to glow,” Srikanth Reddy writes in one of his poems. “This mild phosphorescence reaches its greatest intensity a few days after death, then ebbs away as the body decays. You can read by this light.” The last sentence completes the full circle that pertains to a psalm being unfolded in the poem, the psalm that is itself the very poem we are consuming in the ebbing light of a carcass. This “mild phosphorescence”, this seeming miracle of luminosity, that momentary grace in spite of and resulting from the process of physical corruption, is a most fitting analogy to the workings of the perverse in Oda sa Wala and Sonya’s relationship with the Void.

Apart from the recurring Chinese song, “Jasmine Flower”, the motif of efflorescence also finds multiple iterations in the tiny details throughout the film: flowers for the dead, Sonya’s floral pillows and sheets, the spring flowers painted on her bedhead and the framed image of a flower hanging above it, the floral pattern on a wall clock, and her floral-printed blouse when Sonya has decided to doll up for Elmer, the young man she likes, her first and only clothing that bears noticeable color and design within a series of drab and printless clothes she wears in the film. This floral motif persists in the narrative, and Baltazar potently deploys the trope of nuptial spring against the soltera’s abject and barren connotations, mining the poignant and morbid irony of such juxtaposition.  “Before you got here, I thought… maybe it would be better if I just disappeared,” Sonya tells the auspicious corpse she has just done up, and whom she addresses as her deceased mother, pretending that the latter has finally returned to somehow deliver Sonya from the curse of her solitude. Dressed in newly bought clothes and crowned with a wreath of flowers, the dead woman transforms into Sonya’s spring goddess and her very own Flower Girl. In the traditional symbolism of the wedding procession, the flower girl leads the bride forward, from childhood to adulthood and from innocence to her roles as both wife and mother. 

The realm of social reason and cultural order are sustained and plotted by the rhythm of habits and negotiations in the story: the consumption of media; the business of minding the dead; service rates and other regulations of value; keeping time: her age, her birthday, the closing hours at work, meals, mornings waiting for Elmer, and the loan shark scheduled visits; the fuss over private property and title; the obligation of paying the debt; the old grand piano being sequestered as a partial mode of payment, and the assigned value of things, commodities and mementos alike; paying the jeepney fare; the pressure of relationships and civil status; familial relations; or the admissible truth of photographs.

The void is neither sheer absence nor wretched abstraction; its nothingness possesses a ruthless and irrevocable materiality that alters and impinges upon this world of bodies, in the same acoustic logic that the hollow against which the strings are stretched amplifies the trill, and hence a song, however sad or frightening. Sonya strums the Void into emerging its voice, the voice of the Other, and to which she would ardently answer, devoting herself fervidly to fill the emptiness, in the process becoming the very plug in the hole of the Other. In her encounter with the frightening Void, she willfully turns into the transitive object that completes this Otherness: the subject herself stopples Nothing precisely by inhabiting it.

The dark womb slowly retracts the world, engulfs it. Her absence has taken over father and daughter, a palpable void that encroaches upon the house and gradually frays the waking lives of its occupants. Sonya permits her return as a different corpse, and the dead, just like absence, is never passive. Her body discolors and distends. She decays and the foul smell pervades the house. Her absence-presence alters place and the relations and bodies within it, the Void taking on a material shape through the very characters it subsumes, the same figures that carry it out in turn. The otherness that is Nothing encroaches upon Sonya’s daily existence and gradually frays social reason, until she finally turns herself into the object for the jouissance of this Other—a gradual descent, or transmutation, that the film patiently charts with keen and excruciating sensitivity, along with the sounds of inarticulable terrors and longings. 

The photograph as document loses its indexical power as the woman’s corpse has come to nullify and supersede it as the more palpable icon of the dead mother. The corpse exceeds the business deal when it stops being just what it is, its keeper Sonya refusing attempts to claim the body, as the dead woman has now been espoused into their household. The flowers are mere simulacra and the real ones have ceased being plants and become no more than retailed commodities. A bag of cash becomes a bag of newspaper scraps. The old wall clock looms dead, the cassette tape unravels, and the wheezing radio goes mute, and crackles. The sputtering engine of the funeral hearse fails and the two passengers are stuck on the side of the road stretching along the looming forest. Sonya witnesses the very embodied apparition of the old woman, alive and apotheosized into a naked earth god, an ancient figure subsuming the intertwined deifications of nature, fertility, creation, and destruction. It is night all of a sudden, and Sonya, under the full moon, follows her mother into the depths of the forest. She plods through the wilderness, to the sonorous, celestial aria of a woman’s voice, toward her own clearing, her own banwa, to go phantom into the ever elsewhere that will finally fulfill her. When both women, now deep in the woods, finally inhabit the same frame, the dreamy and melancholic trill of notes shared by both the music in the final scene and the flourish of strings in the old Chinese song merge as well into the same stream, right before the moment cuts to black and closing credits. Ablution or dead end, primal regression or death, transcendence or madness, rebirth or extinction. In the end, in the last gesture of an open-ended reprieve, she may well believe, and insist, that the void has sung back after all.

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Posted by on 16 August 2019 in Uncategorized


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