In 2002, Lav Diaz's Batang West Side won the Best Asian Feature Award at the 15th Singapore International Film Festival. History was being made as it was the first epic-length South-east Asian film and a film that dared to take its time tell a story of the boulevard of broken dreams. Noel Vera records the history.


Lav Diaz’s 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 Kobayashi’s 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.

But more than the sheer length of the film is the sheer audacity of Diaz’s storytelling style. Kobayashi’s The Human Condition may be nine hours long, but it’s a war epic and told accordingly, while The Burning Of The Red Lotus Temple is a sweeping historical drama.

Batang West Side has a stubbornly interiorized narrative, with two passive protagonists who would rather sit and stare into space than articulate their feelings. It’s 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 running time?

Batang 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 I’ve ever seen, yet in many ways is unmistakably, profoundly Filipino. It’s 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 Hanzel’s murder.

Along the way we come to know some of the people at the center or periphery of Hanzel’s life - Lolita (Gloria Diaz), his mother; Dolores (Priscilla Almeda), his girlfriend; Lolo Abdon (Ruben Dizon), his grandfather and Bartolo (Art Acuna), his mother’s 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 Hanzel’s salvation or damnation - sometimes both, at the same time.

Beyond 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 community’s younger generation.

Diaz also reveals one of the community’s 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?

Hard questions, 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.

Note: 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).
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May 29, 2007

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