Mula sa Kung Ano Ang Noon feels like a return to basics for Lav Diaz. Norte: Hangganan ng Kasaysayan, his most popular and successful film by far, was relatively accessible for one of his films. It was shot in color, had what appeared to be a real budget, and is among his shorter works. This film, which is remarkably getting a weeklong commercial run, is more in the style to which longtime Diaz fans have grown accustomed. It is in black and white, an hour longer, and in some ways more abstract in its storytelling. But this shouldn’t scare away the people who were introduced to Diaz through Norte. It is the logical next step in appreciating the filmmaker’s powerful aesthetics.
The movie is a little hard to summarize, but it mostly follows the changes that occur in a small provincial barrio on the cusp of martial law. The movie begins in 1970, and the town is introduced as a peaceful little place still in touch with the country’s animist past. Sito (Perry Dizon) tends to his young nephew Hakob (Reynan Abcede), who believes that his parents have been sent off to a leper colony. Itang (Hazel Orencio) cares for her palsy-stricken sister Josefina (Karenina Haniel), whose affliction also appears to have given her the power the heal people. As terrible events unfold in the town, Heding (Mailes Kanapi) arrives in the village to sell goods and spread rumors about the cause of these events.
These characters are witness to the changes taking place in this town. At the beginning, the people are deeply connected to the land, and as the film goes on the connection becomes fuzzier. The old ways start to die out, replaced by commerce and greed and human venality. Violence eventually makes an incursion into the town, and an idyllic past starts to feel like a distant memory. This is one of the real tricks to the length of a Lav Diaz picture. There is enough distance between beginning and end that the movie itself becomes a fragment of imperfect memory.
There is a lot to take in, but it is all breathtaking. Diaz’s images are mesmerizing. They are beautifully composed in black and white, and they always capture something vital about the human experience. Here, the vast landscapes take center stage. The film will often begin a scene with the characters just about to enter the frame, Diaz allowing the audience to take in the personality of the environment before the humans impose their will and create context. This film is so much about the purity of location, and how vital it is to form a connection to a place.
The acting conforms to the themes. At the start, the performances are understated and blend into the tapestry of life in the town. The likes of Perry Dizon and Hazel Orencio, longtime Diaz collaborators, quietly build their characters within the subdued noise of provincial life. And then Mailes Kanapi enters like a typhoon as Heding. This is a character that won’t take no for an answer, and will never leave a secret unexplored. The performance is bracing, and represents the major shift that is coming.
Mula sa Kung Ano Ang Noon captures a specific moment in history, but it speaks of the nation as a whole, and of humanity in an even bigger sense. It tells a story of people living at peace with the land, the peace brought about by their relationship to a sense of place. Chaos reigns in the forgetting, in the intricate lies that humans tell all in the name of survival. Once again, Diaz delivers a parable of empathy rooted in the history of our people. And he does it in his inimitable style.