Clocking in a runtime of 157 minutes, slow cinema auteur Lav Diaz's Genus Pan (2020) is his second shortest feature film since Elegy to the Visitor From the Revolution (120 minutes) in 2011, and it made its Indian premiere at the 26th Kolkata International Film Festival earlier this month. The film's length " in comparison to the director's usual six and eight-hour-long creations " however, does not betray its intensity and demand for stoic perseverance.
Genus Pan follows three miners " young Andres (Don Melvin Boongaling), and middle-aged Paulo (Bart Guingona) and Baldomero (Nanding Josef) " working in the illegal gold mines of Philippines journeying back to their homes in the remote, squandered island of Hugaw (literally meaning 'filth'). Their escape is planned in a bid to rescue themselves from further exploitation at the hands of a greedy boss who extorts money from their skimpy pay on the pretext of housing rent and charges for amenities. Their trek proves to be a revelation and challenge riddled with dangers of the most primal kind " threat to life and sanity " as it is laced with bloody secrets and motives, and hope for a bloodier destination.
The film builds on Diaz's 36-minute short Hugaw ('Dirt Island') from the 2018 omnibus Lakbayan, and plods through the time and space it occupies with painstaking tedium that is crucial to appreciating the nature of the journey the characters undertake. As is tradition, Lav unapologetically relies on stark black-and-white images with an immobile camera placed several feet away from its subjects, creating the illusion of watching a televised play, with the characters relying heavily on exaggerated histrionics. Expectedly, the lens defiantly steers clear of close ups to forge a palpable distance between the characters and the spectators " a style now synonymous with the director, whose oeuvre is a meditation on the violence sustained by his people through history, first as a colony, and later under fascist leaders.
Through the years, Diaz's films have almost always reminded me of Brutalist architecture in their form and disposition. Both rank high in functionality and disruption to the extent of being overwhelmingly so, and hold a jarring ability to knock out the onlooker with their sheer scale and audacity. To put it simply, they are brutal and unforgiving in their commentary on the criminal nature of social banalities, and Genus Pan is no exception.
The film's action is pinned on a key murder that occurs during the trio's journey through the wild, followed by a Rashomon-esque retelling of the incident that propels the narrative forward. It generously borrows from Filipino myths and folklore to allegorise the dehumanising nature of the country's modern-day politics and society. In this light, Diaz's almost pitiless approach towards capturing the plight of the most socio economically deprived classes proves to be a potent exercise in endurance " of witnessing their despair unfurl in real time. There are instances when the camera demands your patience by coercing you into waiting for its subjects to arrive " for what feels like several long minutes " on deserted, uncaring landscapes. You might just take this as a personal affront, and ask yourself if your time is really that expendable. The answer to that question is what makes all the difference in the viewing experience.
The unidirectional view tends to feel voyeuristic and exasperating at the same time, mimicking a surveillance lens stationed at our eye levels. For the viewer, it successfully translates the characters' sensations of being trapped within an oppressive framework that lends no escape, much like the toxic society it satirises. The claustrophobia is made evident in the situatedness of the people in the film as well, as they run in veritable circles within their water-locked strip of land with every lane leading to the perilous sea beyond. The story unequivocally challenges the audience to survive the ride with the characters, and emerge on the other side feeling battered and squeamish about the world they have moulded, as their homes are no less barbarous.
The term 'genus Pan' literally denotes the two surviving species of apes " the chimpanzee and the bonobo, and the title crudely alludes to our delusions of being an evolved race among violent and boorish primates. (Diaz puts all conjectures on the title to rest by injecting a scene where the miners listen to a scientist sermonise on the lack of difference between humans and chimps on the radio, while lumbering through the jungles.) When Andres and his fellow islander Inggo (Joel Saracho) vilely obsess over manipulating other's deaths for personal gains, it oddly evokes more sympathy than repugnance in acknowledgement of the systemic absence of agency in their lives, stripping them of human dignity. It is like watching circus animals dance to the tunes of their ringmasters " a profession that was incidentally adopted by Paulo and Baldomero as well, where they popularly performed as 'twin geckos', before turning to mining " who are the bona fide brutes.
Consequently, this conscious lack of sophistication in both subject and its cinematic treatment (as opposed to Lav's past projects that dealt with higher concepts and abstract philosophies) threatens to be equal parts monotonous and arousing, depending on how primed one's appetite is for the auteur's films. For me personally, it mostly works as a hypnotising pattern that eases me into his dog-eat-dog world, making me appropriately restless about reaching the finishing line, much like his characters.
Therefore, I believe it is safe to say that Lav Diaz's Best Director award win for Genus Pan at the Venice Film Festival's Orizzonti section is well deserved, as he masterfully weaves the slow burn into one of his shortest features so far, to make a harrowing and bitter commentary on the subhuman conditions plaguing the most disenfranchised population in his country. In hindsight, thank god for the excruciating patience and attention it demands.
Genus Pan was screened at the Kolkata International Film Festival.
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