Brutally frank and mercilessly honest, Lav Diaz’s Batang West Side (2001) is a searing indictment at the Filipino diaspora culture- -a culture of indifference and ignorance. Likewise, at the very shadow of it lies a more sinister superimposition that is practically the representation of our social cancer. As we realize whether the decision to leave justifies the necessity, cognizant of the eventual degradation of the Filipino morals and ideals, or are we simply a gathered bunch insensitive to all of it, deprived of perception by the lure of an erstwhile fantasy of a greener pasture?

Batang West Side starts out with a fatal shooting of a Filipino teenager, Hanzel Harana (Yul Servo), on a whiteout-drenched West Side Avenue in Jersey City. A Filipino-American detective, Juan Mijares (Joel Torre) is dispatched to the scene of the crime and starts a tooth and nails crusade to find out who killed the hapless youth. His investigation sends him to interview a cornucopia of characters–from Hanzel’s mother, Lolita (Gloria Diaz), Dolores, the girlfriend (Priscilla Almeda), the grandfather, Lolo Abdon (Ruben Pizon), to his hard-luck friends and even former “bosses”. Each has their own picture of what Hanzel’s life is before his carefree life is cut short on a cold pavement in a place he is not supposed to be. The film is not so much a police procedural than as a run-of-the-mill formulaic melodrama, but the true mystery reveals not the who but on the circumstances. It is not a crime-thriller where you are treated to a plethora of the conventional recipe that identifies it as one, rather transcending into an effective character sketch and at the same time portraying a situational image of a community of minorities struggling to find its lost identity.

Contemplative in its aesthetic and intrinsic interpretation, Lav Diaz deftly illustrates a young man’s gradual deconstruction as he helplessly wrestles through a familial dysfunction to the unavoidable immersion into a world of substance abuse. The social relevancy also indicates the necessity of the Filipino displacement as the ultimate truckstop to a life after poverty. Yet the film’s concrete lefthook lands a powerful punch towards the perennial predicament that afflicts the contemporary Filipino youth: shabu (or crystal meth–or as they casually call it, poor man’s cocaine). Diaz’s static camera shots construe a meditative interplay of the bleak snow-blanketed milieu and an individual disoriented by a profound shock, allowing us a kind of voyeuristic verisimilitude as we witness an inescapable and tragic transformation.

Unrestrained by obligations by a production studio contract, Lav Diaz exercises such a given liberty through this film, with a running time of five hours–a complete detachment from the Godardian experimentation of Burger Boys (1998) to the mainstream sensibilities of Serafin Geronimo: Kriminal ng Baryo Concepcion (1999) and Hubad sa Ilalim ng Buwan (2000). In Batang West Side, Diaz captures the nitty-gritty survivalist instincts of his migrant compatriots and expatriates alike, with its Darwinian kill-or-be-killed philosophy at heart, in the middle of the urban battlefield of a distant western city.

The dramatis personnae, who fundamentally supports the films’ near-fluid narrative, centers on Mijares. His own personal battles aside, likewise, he has a tendency to collapse, like Harana. He constantly dreams of his sick mother (played by Angel Aquino) who, at the beginning of the film, is in a state of coma, however he tends to avoid discussing it with his psychiatrist, frightened of opening up his true self and uncover skeletons tucked undisturbed in his closet. He harbors a terrible secret and as he does away with it in front of a documentary filmmaker’s camera near the end, we feel a sense of liberation. Not because he manages to release himself from the similar quicksand that has trapped and ultimately eaten up Hanzel Harana, but we are to discern a freedom from the nightmarish reality that is supposedly a prelude to a better dream.

There is Lolita, Hanzel’s mother, who escapes an impoverished life in the Islands–deserting a husband and four kids–and marries a paraplegic, trapped in her own mansion of riches. She brings Hanzel from the Philippines and prods him to live with her, her husband and her lover, Bartolo (Arthur Acuna)–the personification of malevolence in the film, suffocating with opportunity his sinister love affair with Lolita. Exactly Lolita’s methods are vivid examples of the inherent Filipino tendency to rescue and resuscitate the dying hope of her family swimming in destitution back home. From here we are forced to realize whether the judgment she makes precipitates Hanzel’s early demise and leaving a relentless quandary on the morality of decision. Lolo Abdon, who, we come to know as the traditional, stick-in-the-mud grandfather, the only paternal figure Hanzel looks up to, subtly wondering if his betrayal of his grandson’s trust and friendship could have been a catalyst to such a tragedy. And then there is Dolores, whose acceptance and compassion towards Hanzel is, unusually, perceived from a Filipino girl born and reared in the west. It is through her that belies the notion of the disaffected youth, a contradiction versus the tight upbringing of Filipino children back home. Her attitude towards Hanzel, while at times, subservient, is sufficient to say of the kind of guidance she is attempting to bestow however unreciprocated that may be.

In retrospect, Batang West Side may be Lav Diaz’s own take at Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth, and possibly a sort of auto-da-fe. His belief that the Filipino society represented by the temporarily displaced youth–the Hanzel Haranas of the world, would rather barter a future of happiness yet bound by poverty to a promise of existence marred by definite uncertainty, somehow will always be a question that incessantly resonates within us.

From the Blog, Brainstorms From The Shower, November 24, 2010