Monday, April 7, 2008
SIFF'08: Death in the Land of Encantos
I am back in Bangkok after an exhausting weekend of watching films at the Singapore International Film Festival, with yesterday's viewing, the nine-hour-long Death in the Land of Encantos by Lav Diaz, totally wiping me out.
First, I want to thank Nutshell Review's (and Twitch's) Stefan and Linus of MovieXclusive for taking time to meet with me, buy me breakfast and offer their support before I headed in to Death. Stefan offers his thoughts on the festival so far.
It was great to put some faces with some e-mail addresses and blogger handles. We had breakfast at Kopitiam and chatted about the Thailand and Singaporean film scenes. After a couple of sugary coffees, I thought maybe I was ready.
Well, nothing can really prepare you for viewing a nine-hour film -- you have to just take it. But having previously watched Diaz' Heremias, I sort of had an idea of what I was in for.
If possible, Death in the Land of Encantos is more meditative than Heremias, with some gorgeous, contrasty vistas of the deadly Mayon volcano cone and the devastated landscape. The film takes place in the wake of Typhoon Durian, with a poet, Benjamin Agustan returning home after spending seven years in Russia. He finds his family and girlfriend have been killed in the disaster. His old studio is buried under tons of mud from a landslide caused by the typhoon's effect on the loose earth and rocks on the slopes of Mayon. She is beautiful, but unforgiving and deadly.
Benjamin, or Hamin, reconnects with two of his old artist friends -- a sculptor-painter named Carmelita and poet-turned family man Teodoro. A lot of time is spent with the trio talking about the state of the arts in the Philippines. And Hamin and Carmelita reconnect and details of their past together are revealed.
If Heremias was about the moral conscience of the Philippines, then Death in the Land of Encantos is about the Philippines' artistic soul, and quite possibly, the loss of it. It reveals the apparently fictional character of Benjamin as a deeply troubled man, and the final blow to his psyche appears to have been the loss of his girlfriend. It doesn't help that there's a secret policeman shadowing him, warning him not to return to his radical activist ways, or else he'll again face horrible torture.
Diaz' camera lingers longingly over a nude woman on a bed, capturing her from just about every conceivable angle, under different grades of light, from full daylight to shadowy night. Most of the film, it seems, is shot at dusk or under heavy cover of clouds. As Diaz does not seem to employ the use of any lighting in his films, the action is all in a gray haze, as if in a dream. And it's all in black and white.
There also shots taken from a street in Zagreb, Croatia. I'm not sure how those fit in, but I suppose it comes from Benjamin's travels, and possibly has to do with a woman he was chasing there.
Another interlude deals with folklore about some little magical people who live in the small mounds that are around.
What I learned from watching Heremias is that in a Lav Diaz film of this length, things don't really get going until well after the four-hour mark. But to dive in to the middle of the film and expect to know what is going on would be inconceivable. It's all part of the magic.
Eventually, the film switches from drama to docu-drama, with Diaz interviewing typhoon survivors, as well as people talking about Benjamin before coming to a mind-blowing, soul-crushing ending.
Oh, just another note about Singapore: If you go, make sure you have a mobile phone that is set up for international roaming. To not have a phone set up this way is unthinkable in Singapore. It's the only way you'll be able to surf the Internet in the island-city. There is wireless access most everywhere, but it's through SingTel and the only way to receive the password for the account is by SMS sent to your phone. I found this out too late.