Wise Kwai

Nine hours may seem like a long time to sit and watch a movie. And it is. But once you devote that amount of time to a story, how can it not have impact? And the effect of Heremias, after nine hours, is mind-blowing.

When I first heard about Heremias, and that it was going to be shown at the Thai Film Foundation’s Digital Forum, I only half-heartedly wanted to see it. I was unsure about committing that much time to sitting in the frigid environs of Grand EGV’s Cinema 3 when I’ve got other things on my mind. But I’m not new to long films, having watched all of the six-hour Best of Youth a couple years ago when it was screened in Bangkok during the EU Film Festival, and it was a rewarding experience. If I’d have had it on DVD and brought it home to watch, I probably wouldn’t have gotten as much out of it. In truth, I probably wouldn’t have brought it home at all.

For Heremias, I thought at first that I would give it three hours, and if I wasn’t interested, I’d cash in my chips. But a friend told me I’d have to commit myself, and if the first three hours was all I was willing to see, I might has well not see it at all. My friend’s comments were mirrored by Alexis from the Manila-based Southeast Asian film journal, Criticine, who was in Bangkok to present the film.

So, I stayed. And luckily, I’d prepared myself, with a warm flannel shirt, although a hooded sweatshirt would’ve been better. With intermissions every three hours, a bathroom just down the hall and a Starbucks not far away, I was readily fortified.

The story is pretty simple, and could easily be told in a much shorter timeframe, but I don’t guess it would have the same impact. It’s about a guy named Heremias, who represents the common Filipino, and comes to represent the nation’s moral conscience. Heremias is on the road with his ox cart and a group of other men and their ox carts, travelling from town to town, selling handicrafts off their carts. But Heremias is brooding and fidgety. He wants to do something more than hang out with this same group of guys night after night, travelling the same route year after year. So he strikes out on his own, against the advice of his friends, who warn it will be dangerous for him to travel alone.

The move proves to be disastrous for Heremias and his magnificent white cow, Jordan, but along the way something awakens inside Heremias – after he is dealt with injustice from a bribe-seeking policeman and ineffectual responses from a village leader and a priest, who just want Heremias to go away, rathern than solve his problems.

The stories Heremias hears along the way embolden him. The English title of the film, Book One: The Legend of the Lizard Princess, refers to a small episode in the film, where Heremias is riding a bus and the bus conductor tells the story of a beautiful young woman who is taken and killed by hunters. The girl’s parents then notice a lizard coming around their house, and they believe it to be the girl’s spirit, and the lizard also serves as a protector against any bad people who come around.

Heremias captures just about every facet of Filipino society, from a haughty, demanding upper-class woman who asks Heremias for a discount on his trinkets, to the youth and drugs sub-culture.

Aestheticially, it’s full of interesting choices, including the length and the decision to present it in black-and-white (even though it was shot in color). Most of the shots are long or medium-range, with few close ups. At times, the camera faces one way, watching the subjects, like the line of ox carts, come into the frame, and get closer. The camera then turns and watches the subjects move out of the frame.

Much of the time is spent simply watching what is going on – Heremias dealing with the weather, or Heremias watching some kids party and listen to a tape of some loud rock music, while they take drugs and spray graffiti on the walls of an abandoned house. Director Lav Diaz himself plays the distorted, buzz-laden guitar part. Along with being a daring, pioneering director, Diaz could also be the lead guitarist of a stoner rock band, if he wanted to.

However, given that I’ve heard part two, or Book 2, of Heremias, will be anywhere from 11 to 18 hours long, I’m not sure that Diaz will have time for that.