This is my first time to experience a Lav Diaz film, and it’s a very jarring experience. ‘Ang Panahon ng Halimaw’ is a four hour black and white musical where the whole script is sung-through, but in acapella, completely devoid of music. There are over thirty songs that comprise all the dialogue in the film that tells a tale of Martial Law, of the Philippines in the 70s, when a paramilitary force terrorizes a remote village and the lives of a poet and his wife, who is a doctor who moved to the village to help the residents there.
‘Ang Panahon ng Halimaw’ is stark and bleak. It’s dreadfully slow and very straightforward. It meanders, juggling five stories at the same time, and has a tendency to overplay its message. While it is said to be Lav Diaz’s most accessible work, the movie operates more like a play. Except for one scene, Lav Diaz’s camera never moves and while it’s said to be his style in his other films, in ‘Ang Panahon ng Halimaw’ they become set pieces for his characters to sing their inner worlds.
Without music, the songs play out like chants, but there is no discernible structure to most of the songs and the lines are constantly repeated. And while emphasis might be the point to the redundancy, with a still frame and the stark muted image in black and white, the effect feels overdrawn and fails to achieve a kinetic energy that I feel is intended by the lyrics.
A lot is hinged on the songs. While Diaz’s still frame are wonderfully composed and lit by Director of Photography Larry Manda, the story unfolds before it, rather than the camera directing us to the narrative. The actors come into frame and ruminate in silence or sing their thoughts and intentions. With so much stillness, it’s only in the songs that one can truly perceive the story.
But without any real song structure to most of the chants and the constant repeating of its chorus, it immediately loses its appeal. The point has been made early but it continues on and with very little happening on screen, it doesn’t build up to anything tangible or impactful.
The narrative in itself is quite simple. A paramilitary group in a remote village in the province has come to terrorizing the residents, randomly killing people and portraying them as rebels, complete with a signs that says “Huwag ako tularan. Rebelde ako.” (Don’t imitate me. I’m a rebel). Lorena (Shaina Magdayao), a doctor, comes to the village to help out and tries to defend the residents including Aling Sinta (Pinky Amador), who has been painted by the military as the supernatural cause of the village’s misfortune.
When Lorena disappears, her husband Hugo (Piolo Pascual), a poet, enters into depression. He loses himself in drink, is cared for by a woman (Angel Aquino), whose relation to him is unclear to me, before he decides to go to the village of Ginto to find his wife.
It is there where Hugo discovers the collateral damage of Martial Law and comes to face the truth about the disappearance of his wife.
It’s a dense work, filled with a heavy-handed message that is clearly outlined from the beginning. It jumps from character to character without any discernible sense, at one moment showing the horrible deeds of the military, and then another focusing on Hugo’s depression and feelings of loss, followed by Lorena taking care of Aling Sinta and protecting her from the military.
It’s jarring and confusing, and the discordant melodies makes it difficult to connect with the piece emotionally. Any powerful image doesn’t last because it’s immediately replaced by another and after four hours of this, it becomes difficult to put the pieces together in a way that leaves you charged.
I’ve seen my share of art films, but this was much more difficult to connect with. The imagery was lovely but it was hard to connect with the story because it made its point early but took forever to conclude it. The film is obviously a metaphor for today’s political climate and it makes this evident early on, but drags out this message for the entire length of the movie. 'Ang Panahon ng Halimaw' gathers all this potential energy but its ending, like how some songs are edited, are cut right at the moment before it can make its full impact.