Batang West Side (West Side Avenue, 2001) is five hours
long - the longest Filipino film ever and possibly the longest
Asian film meant to be seen in a single sitting ever. Masaki
Kobayashis The Human Condition is nine hours long, but
was released as three three-hour films; the silent The Burning
Of The Red Lotus Temple was reportedly 27 hours in length but
that was released in two-hour installments over a period of
several years, from 1928 to 1931.
than the sheer length of the film is the sheer audacity of Diazs
storytelling style. Kobayashis The Human Condition may
be nine hours long, but its a war epic and told accordingly,
while The Burning Of The Red Lotus Temple is a sweeping historical
West Side has a stubbornly interiorized narrative, with
two passive protagonists who would rather sit and stare into
space than articulate their feelings. Its a genre that
in my less generous moments I like to call "The Cinema
of the Comatose," and its practitioners include the Taiwanese
(Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Edward Yang) and Japanese (Kurosawa Kyoshi,
Hirokazu Kore-eda). As far as I can recall, however, none of
them have ever dared to stretch their understated style of storytelling
to five hours. The question is, does the film justify its 300-minute
West Side is not your usual crime thriller or Filipino melodrama.
There are no car chases or violent shoot-outs; no tearful confrontations
or contests as to who can throw the loudest hysterical fit.
The film feels and looks like no other Filipino film Ive
ever seen, yet in many ways is unmistakably, profoundly Filipino.
Its the story of Hanzel Harana (Yul Servo), a young immigrant
freshly arrived in the United States, his freshly killed body
lying on the concrete sidewalk that runs the length of West
Side Avenue, Jersey City. The rest of the film follows Officer
Juan Mijarez (Joel Torre), a Filipino police detective, as he
investigates Hanzels murder.
way we come to know some of the people at the center or periphery
of Hanzels life - Lolita (Gloria Diaz), his mother; Dolores
(Priscilla Almeda), his girlfriend; Lolo Abdon (Ruben Dizon),
his grandfather and Bartolo (Art Acuna), his mothers lover.
Each of them serves as inspiration or impediment to Hanzel,
as either source of conflict, comfort, or comic relief (the
film is a triumph of ensemble acting, and both Gloria Diaz and
Priscilla Almeda - the latter a well-known soft-core porn
actress - are acting revelations). Each of them represents either
Hanzels salvation or damnation - sometimes both, at the
this, Diaz gives us an overview of the Filipino-American community,
both its functional and dysfunctional members - incidentally
exploding the myth of the Filipino-American as a hardworking,
overachieving model citizen. Not every Filipino is a conservative,
law-abiding lamb, Diaz seems to tell us as he captures the amorality
of the communitys younger generation.
reveals one of the communitys dirtiest secrets - shabu
or crystal meth, apparently a Filipino product exported
to the United States, and one quickly coming into popular use
among Filipino youths. Beyond even that, Diaz questions the
ultimate direction the Filipino people have taken. Is overseas
migration the cure-all solution everyone thinks it is? Is the
family still the central social unit in Philippine society?
What hope is there for the Filipino youth - or is there hope
of any kind left?
even unpopular questions, to ask. Diaz asks them quietly, unflinchingly,
with little pretension or fuss and, for this, the film is of
importance and worth. For the immense sadness at the center
of the film, however - for the sense Diaz gives us of mourning
the loss of a single Filipino (and implicitly, mourning the
death of the Filipino heart and spirit) - it is, hands down,
the best in Philippine cinema in 2001.
Cinemaya Magazine, Issue # 54-55, Winter-Spring 2002.
The above also appears in Noel Vera's Critic After Dark: A Review
Of Philippine Cinema (BigO Books).
Click here to order.