Batang West Side (2001) (West Side Avenue)
Thanks to West Side Avenue (2001), clearly Lav Diaz’s first major work, we now know what will happen if the Filipino filmmaker takes to genre filmmaking. Diaz takes the standard policier, blows it to a size beyond what the text can handle and, in essence, brings to surface the mechanics of the genre. Constructed as a (seemingly endless) series of interrogations and recollections, a la Citizen Kane (1941), the film presents itself like a sphere without a centre. (Like Charles Kane, the relationship of all the characters to the dead boy at the centre of Diaz’s film – which is developed strikingly with a plethora of parallels – becomes the guiding device.) The procedure becomes so routine and schematic, aided to a large degree by the repetition of spaces and compositions, that the lead detective (Joel Torre) becomes something of a Melvillian zombie trudging through generic structures. But then, talking about Diaz’s film in terms of the genre is not half as justified as reading it from a national and auteurist perspective. Firmly planted in historical and geographical particulars – Filipino youth living in and around Jersey City during the turn of the century – the film takes up the issue of disappearing Filipinos – a sensitive idea that would be pursued further in other forms the later films – and examines the historical deracination and alienation that marks these young men and women. The relationship between the various characters with the killed teenager reflects their own conflicted relationship with their homeland. The film, itself, is somewhat (and slightly problematically) neo-nationalistic in flavour, gently appealing for cultural consciousness, integration and a “return to one’s roots”. The narrative mostly involves the investigation of the murder of one Manila teenager, If one moves beyond its precise sociological ambitions, one also discovers the flourishing of to-be-familiar stylistic (and narrative) devices: Scenes in master shots, montage of long takes, monochrome passages in. video and use of total amateurs. (Oddly enough, my favorite scene in the film is among the most uncharacteristic of Diaz’s cinema: a breakfast scene cut with verve comparable to Classical Hollywood). However, the most unmistakable authorial trademark of West Side Avenue is also the feature that attracts me most to Diaz’s work: the candidness and enthusiasm about his politics and political engagement, in general, as well as that rare faith in and love for cinema. That is why, towards the end of the film’s five hours, when the detective and the filmmaker – two professions seeking to discover truth – catch up with each other and restore the hitherto-absent heart of the film, you don’t if Diaz identifies with the detective or the filmmaker. He’s both.
[Capsule added to The Films of Lav Diaz]