Filipino auteur Lav Diaz’s reputation as the maker of extremely long, austere films in black-and-white may have unfortunately clouded the degree to which his work remains intellectually and emotionally accessible. While it is true that Diaz privileges a detached, master-shot aesthetic, with little camera movement and musical score, he remains a filmmaker firmly committed to clear narrative lines and character motivations. Despite his unmistakable personal style, his films consistently grapple with established film genres, freely adapting conventions from crime movies, melodramas, sci-fi, political thrillers and even musicals.

Diaz’s latest opus When the Waves Are Gone (Kapag Wala Nang Mga Alon), which premiered at the Venice Film Festival last year, borrows equally from film noir and the Western, recounting the fated encounter of two violent men with a score to settle. Wracked with guilt over his involvement in the government’s murderous anti-drug campaign, top cop Hermes Papauran (John Lloyd Cruz, in his fifth feature with Diaz), begins to lose grip on his well-being and family life. His body develops severe psoriasis, prompting him to head for the salubrious coastal clime of his native village. In Hermes’ autoimmune disorder, Diaz finds an apt metaphor for a system determined to attack the very thing it is supposed to protect. Yet it is an unnerving, puritanical association that views physical illness as the offshoot of moral rot.

Released from prison, meanwhile, ex-sergeant Supremo Macabantay (Diaz’s regular collaborator Ronnie Lazaro) sets out to hunt down Hermes, who was once his protégé at the police academy and who had him arrested for corruption. As is often the case in Diaz’s films, this antagonist proves the more interesting character. A political assassin who is also an evangelist, Supremo commands the best passages of the film, such as the darkly humorous episodes where he coerces a boatman to jump overboard for baptism or when he brings a young sex worker to his hotel room, only to have her kneel and pray.

For the most part, Waves interweaves their stories, with Hermes and Supremo biding their time at their respective hideouts before their eventual high noon, which arrives in the shape of a ritual showdown by the sea. Alternating between towns and villages, indoors and outdoors, the film combines significant narrative ellipses with expansive slabs of real-time action, all helping impart a dynamic rhythm to the proceedings.

Waves is of a piece with Diaz’s permanent examination of his country’s embattled moral conscience, but the address is more direct than ever, the tone more despondent. The result is a passionate (if somewhat melodramatic) philippic against a nation that seems doomed to cycles of enslavement and oppression.


[First published in Sight&Sound]