A Quick Guide To Slow Cinema, Or How To Watch A Lav Diaz Movie
Lav Diaz is probably the most critically-acclaimed if not most well-known contemporary Filipino filmmaker abroad. His works have been screened in top-brass festivals internationally and locally. The international film press like to discuss his work or publish interviews with him. Suffice to say, we owe a lot to the man for helping bring Philippine cinema back to the world stage.
Lav has been making films since 1990 but rose to prominence in the last decade as one of the pioneers of the “slow cinema” movement, with works like Melancholia (2008), Norte: Ang Hanggang ng Kasaysayan (2013), and Ang Babaeng Humayo (2016). An auteur in the truest sense of the word, Diaz creates according to the dictates of his soul, unperturbed by the constraints of time, budget, and especially audience expectations.
Unfortunately, he is somewhat obscure in his home country, despite a number of his films being commercially-released, and despite big-name actors starring in his recent outputs.
Shaina Magdayao as Lorena Photo by Giovanni D. Onofrio
It’s most likely because of the length and pace of his films, and because of his unconventional style.
His films are known to run beyond the cinema standard of two hours, with his longest works reaching eight, nine hours. His more recent obras have been kinder: averaging around four hours. Many of his films are also known for their steady camera work—as in the camera literally doesn’t move—whereas conventional filmmaking favors rapid movements and quick angle changes to supposedly sync with the the modern audience’s attention span. Sound, spectacular stunts, and music are also sparse in many of his works.
Cinematographer Larry Manda setting up a scene Photo by Giovanni D. Onofrio
During an interview with magazine and streaming service Mubi, Diaz shares that the stories he tells are stories that “have been told [before]”—but in a very “Hollywood-ish” manner. The characters populating mainstream cinema do not have the privilege of space and time Diaz allows his characters. They are given the chance to mull things over onscreen, view their options and arrive at a decision. In the mainstream world, film characters are not as lucky. “You don't actually see them as human beings, that they have these contradictions and dualities in life. Including the dark side, the bad side.”
Why bother sitting through a Lav Diaz movie? Because like many things that involve a struggle, this one yields glorious rewards. An education on history. A new perspective. An experience quite unlike anything you’ve had before.
The main cast at one of their final ensemble numbers
The movie comments on militarization
Since we cannot literally hold your hand through this challenge, we’ve come up with a guide on how to best watch and appreciate Lav’s movies.
One must treat a Lav Diaz as one would a classic novel. His works demand time, energy, and most of all, commitment to see it through. There’s leisure lit that we read when relaxing at a staycation, or when sipping a Chianti by the beach. But there are works we immerse ourselves in, shuttered from distractions. Works that challenge us and ask us to think and pay attention. These are Diaz’s films.
When watching it at home – there are DVDs available and streaming sites like Mubi show his films – be sure to make yourself comfortable: set the aircon at the right temperature, and get your sturdiest pillows. Remove nearby distractions: be they work matters or leisure objects. Lav’s movies make for great watching with a few best friends or a significant other: you’ll have a lot to talk about after. Watch when it’s dark as that adds to the contemplative atmosphere of the work.
Or watch at your own pace. Put the film on pause. Get a beer. Check your email. Bake Kris Aquino’s cheesy pasta. Then go back to watching. If Lav can take his time, he will be happy to know you did, too, just like his movies. We’ve met the guy, and we’ve never met anyone cooler.
But we still advice watching in a theater. The better to marvel at his beautifully composed vistas. Also, the presence of strangers will dissuade you from taking too many bathroom breaks or checking your phone. Use the trailers to open and finish your food—not just to avoid making noise—because once the movie starts, you’ll need your hands to grip your seat. You may find yourself shifting around your chair when you’re exhausted. At least you’re not in the office. Just keep watching. Keep following the story.
Start with the more recent works. They are said to be the most accessible: Norte, Babaeng Humayo, and Panahon ng Halimaw. We also get to see our favorite artistas, well, be artists, given roles beyond the usual: John Lloyd Cruz playing a moonlighting transwoman, Charo Santos in tomboy outfit playing a mother seeking revenge, Papa Piolo Pascual as an anguished poet.
Read up on history. Or read the classics. This will enrich your experience of the films. Maybe read The Conjugal Dictatorship before watching Halimaw which is about martial rule, or watch the docu Batas Militar (it’s on Youtube). Ang Babaeng Humayo is based on Leo Tolstoy’s short story, “God Sees The Truth, But Waits.” His early work Ang Kriminal ng Barrio Concepcion starring Raymond Bagatsing is said to be inspired by Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and so is the epic Norte Hangganan ng Kasaysayan.
Hydrate before watching. But not too soon. Drink just before the show starts. You wouldn’t want to miss any detail. My guy friends, especially when we go hiking, often tell me that women are stronger precisely because we hold our pee longer. Well ladies, that’s one biological advantage we have for Diaz’s cinema.
Ang Panahon ng Halimaw Poster
Diaz’s latest film, Ang Panahon ng Halimaw, which debuted this year in Russia, will get limited commercial release at Ayala Malls cinemas starting today May 30.