Critics have raved about Lav Diaz’s Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon (From What was Before) which recently won the Pardo d’ Oro (Golden Leopard) at the Festival del Film Locarno 2014, the singular highest honor achieved by a Filipino film in its nearly 100 year history. During the award ceremonies, it also bagged the International Critics’ prize, the Don Quixote Prize, Environment is quality of life prize, and the Independent Critics Award for newcomer Hazel Orencio as Best Actress. I was fortunate enough to be invited to the press screening of the film at the SM Mall of Asia, an event sponsored by SM Cinema together with the Film Development Council of the Philippines and Sine Olivia Philippines on the anniversary of the declaration of Martial Law, which many Filipinos believe heralded the darkest days in Philippine history.
MMSKAAN is the story of life in a remote barrio in the years leading up to Martial Law. Itang, a devoted sister to her disabled sister Joselina; Tony the winemaker who harbors a dark secret, Mang Sito, one of the respected elders of the barrio and his “nephew” Hakob, who longs to flee the village to see his parents in Culion, Palawan. The story details their hopes and dreams, their sins, their regrets, their poverty — but as their connections unravel, they are faced with an ominous new threat and are introduced to fear that drives them away from their homes and their native land.
While some other filmmakers who tackled the subject matter of Martial Law have chosen to depict the brutality in the human rights violations perpetrated by those in power during the Marcos regime, indie director Lav Diaz was the first to focus on the lives of regular folk in a remote barrio in the main premise of the movie, making it a unique take on the the same premise. Instead of the rallyists and the activists, the movie trained its lens on those who were in the periphery but were equally touched by the controversial chapter in the nation’s past.
A masterful storyteller, Diaz uses no shortcuts to achieve his means. He takes his time to tell the story sequentially, focusing on every small detail. On the one hand, audiences will appreciate his effort and passion in creating cinematic masterpieces with every frame. It was obvious with each scene that Diaz and his crew took great care to come up with the perfect angle and capture the perfect shot as each frame of this movie could be entered into a photo contest. Each second is composed perfectly with every element (even the animals) seeming to know where there should be. Diaz made sure the each second of this the 5 hour and 38 minute-long film was beautiful to behold. On the other hand, this strength may also be a turnoff for some mainstream moviegoers as Diaz’s penchant to lengthy scenes accented by only by the natural noise of the environment becomes tedious for the less than patient audience. Personally, I thought that the length of the scenes, while calculated to give audiences a chance to process the events, could have benefited from a little more editing to expedite the storytelling. Cutting out some of the scenes could have helped too as it could have shaved off a couple of minutes or even an hour from the film, which would not entirely be a bad thing. I’m all for a cinematic experience and all but of course, it should always be balanced with the audience experience.
The script was beautifully written, the words seeming like poetry in the general scheme of things –words uttered by regular folk with a depth of underlying meaning. A subtle social commentary about corruption and evil, of sacrifice and solidarity, of secrets and shame, of courage and fear. It was filled with meaning, fueled by emotion of characters who experience different types of pain and suffering.
The tone changes significantly when the Armed Forces entered the scene and started outlining their operational orders against the communists. The air in the cinema changed. People sat up much straighter and paid more attention to what was going to happen, but if they are expecting brutality and violence, they will be disappointment because MMSKAN’s approach is much more subtle. It leaves audiences with the task of filling in the blanks and drawing their conclusions.
All in all, watching MMSKAN is an investment of sorts– an investment of time, emotion and thought. It haunts audiences with questions long after the movie is over, and as such, succeeded in getting audiences to think about the message behind the story. It holds audiences captive, forcing them to come to terms with the characters and their stories and gives them ample time to process each scene before it jumps to the next exquisitely framed sequence. Its fraught with food for thought, that challenges moviegoers to appreciate anything different from the mainstream. It’s a really really long journey. I’m not kidding. This is one of the longest movies I’ve sat through, and I felt every second of it.