Last June 28, at the University of the Philippines Film Center, the movie Batang West Side by Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz, was screened for just the second time on Philippine soil. Although the film, set and shot in Jersey City, has earned numerous awards here and abroad, including Best Picture in both the Singapore International Film Festival and the local Urian Awards–one of the more prestigious awards in the country–and the NETPAC Jury award at the Cinemanila International Film Festival, its five-hour length has prevented it from having a wider distribution. The accolades it reaped, however, have already made their impact, as evident in the standing-room-only crowd at this second screening.
The film follows the murder investigation of Filipino-American detective Juan Mijarez into the death of 20-year old Hanzel Harana, a recent immigrant from the Philippines, who was shot on the sidewalk of West Avenue. The film is structured like Citizen Kane—-Diaz is an admitted Orson Welles disciple–where the delving into the mystery is just a means to show the life of the deceased, in this case, Hanzel, and the lives of those close to him. In this regard, the movie is structured like a novel, not just in terms of length, but in the treatment of characters as well: we slowly learn their tragic lives as the movie unfolds.
In this gradual unraveling, Diaz has control of his material, letting the milieu speak for itself. He paints for us a more desolate America with long takes of snow-capped landscapes. He also takes time depicting the tragic and weird—-sometimes funny–characters, whose world is one of dysfunction and drugs. The tone is consistent—-an unfulfilled longing you get inside.
The acting is low-key, made more subdued by long and medium shots. Diaz thus is able to posit more significance to a dialogue or scene by shifting to closer shots.
With the use of flashbacks, Hanzel is brought back to life, as it were, but the lives showcased–his life and the lives of friends and family—-are, simply put, sad. This is the bleaker side of America, of the Filipino-American experience. We see, not the America of milk and honey, but the America of winter and discontent.
The movie is not without its flaws. There are a few technical and narrative lapses that distract, and the ending seems to be out of place, perhaps put there to make a point, an ostensibly political and social comment. But Diaz need not have made it, for just posing the question would have been enough.
The Filipinos who have seen the movie have received it well—-the majority with raves or satisfaction, and only a few quibbles. One would have expected the length to be an issue, as one critic here would have it, but when I talked to those who have seen the movie, they never said that they got bored. For a five-hour long, dialogue-intensive movie, in this MTV world of ours, that indeed, says a lot.