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By Jesse Cumming
Marking Lav Diaz’s return to Venice four years and two features after winning the Golden Lion for the nearly four-hour The Woman Who Left, Genus Pan has invited easy jokes about its relative brevity by Diaz standards, clocking in as it does at a relatively efficient 156 minutes—even though it is, in fact, a nearly fivefold expansion of the 36-minute Hugaw, Diaz’s contribution to the 2018 omnibus film Lakbayan (Journey), which also featured episodes from Brillante Mendoza and Kidlat Tahimik. This shift in scale has also elicited a shift away from the pointed political critique that has featured in much of Diaz’s recent work: last year’s The Halt has acquired even greater cultural currency in light of the COVID-19 crisis, with its speculative-future concept of a fascist government (a barely veiled depiction of the Duterte regime) that capitalizes on a deadly pandemic to enact mass surveillance and other forms of extrajudicial violence. By contrast, Genus Pan’s most pertinent and proximate point of comparison in Diaz’s recent filmography is likely From What Is Before (2014)—not only due to its remote setting and sense of simmering, barely repressed violence, but also in the way its very title locates the horrors of the present in the inheritance of the past.
In the case of Genus Pan, that inheritance stretches back beyond the bloody history of colonialism to the evolutionary roots of the human species. The title term denotes the taxonomic sub-classification of the hominid family that comprises chimpanzees and bonobos, and Diaz wastes little time in making the meaning of his initially oblique title crystal clear. In an early sequence, a scientist, in an interview with a Christian radio station, posits that the more base human instincts (greed, dishonesty, violence, etc.) are the result of less developed brains, whereas goodness and altruism are marks of more advanced cerebral capabilities—a biological “explanation” for the roots of goodness and wickedness that floats on the surface of the film even as Diaz enacts a deeper engagement with how religious faith intertwines with the legacy of colonial exploitation.
Genus Pan’s first movement, comprising much of the material from the earlier short, follows three men seeking to make their way back to their home village on the island of Hugaw during the Philippines Holy Week after serving a tenure as labourers in what appears to be an illegal mine. On receiving their pay, two of the men, Paulo (Diaz regular Bart Guingona) and Andres (Don Melvin Boongaling), are compelled to kick back a hefty sum to the third member of their trio, the callous and enterprising foreman Baldomero (Nanding Josef), presumably as a brokerage fee for his role in securing their positions. More of their earnings are then sacrificed to their managers (in the form of fees for storing their belongings until they return for the next season), and to secure a boat to transport them back to their home island. Although Diaz never specifies the exact nature of the mining operation, the protagonists’ economic exploitation at the hands of their superiors, as well as the ever-present imminence of physical danger (invoked by conversations about recent accidents and mysterious deaths), seem to reference the prevalent illegal gold-mining industry in the Philippines, which yields hundreds of millions of dollars annually in profits while paying its poor workers a pittance and imperilling their lives in the process.
The implicit evocation of this systemic evil is mirrored in one of the major additions that Diaz makes to the material from Hugaw. Prior to their departure, Baldomero recounts the history of the men’s home island by way of the assorted designations (including Indigenous and American place-names) that preceded its current moniker of Hugaw, which means “unclean” in Bisaya—a name derived, in part, from the island’s wartime use by the occupying Japanese as a military R&R station housing kidnapped “comfort women.” When paired with the radio interview that follows, this impromptu history lesson (the first of two in the film) signals the clever double movement that Diaz enacts in Genus Pan: a rigorous, historical-materialist account of how the specific cruelties of past colonial powers have shaped those in the present, combined with a transhistorical view of human nature that suggests that, for all that the names and occupants of a particular place may have changed over the centuries, very little has in terms of humanity’s propensity for exploitation and abuse.
This is particularly evident in the matter of faith, which is illustrated via a near-archetypal delineation of his three protagonists according to their respective levels of piety. At one pole is the devout and altruistic Paulo, who at one point surreptitiously offers his own scant wages to Andres to help the latter pay for his sister’s medication; at the other is the nasty and selfish Baldomero, who is entirely unsympathetic to the plights of his peers and unwilling to cede any of what he considers his hard-earned money. Between the two is the younger, cynical Andres, who points to such events as the murder of his brother and the rape of Hugaw tribeswomen by the local authorities as evidence of the absence of God’s grace.
Andres’ crisis of faith is physically embodied in the arduous journey that faces the men when they reach Hugaw, as they must navigate the island’s dense wilderness in order to reach their village. The group’s already volatile interpersonal dynamics feed into the atmosphere of growing delirium as they move ever deeper into the rough terrain, where the voice of God (or, at least, the fading signal from Paulo’s Christian radio station) can no longer penetrate and other, regional mysticisms come to the fore. Chief among these are the “Black Horse Curse,” a figure of ill luck who supposedly inhabits the island’s forests, and which becomes an increasing fixation of both Andres and Baldomero; and the “Jar of Truth,” an emancipatory totem described by Diaz, in an interview with Filmmaker, as “a composite of the general belief amongst the masses, especially in the remotest areas, that truth is just hidden somewhere.”
At first glance, this narrative arc suggests a reading as essentialist and reductive as the evolutionary model of morality invoked in the radio interview: a disintegration of the colonial construct of Christianity in the face of nature, and a reassertion of “organic” spiritual beliefs in its place. But Diaz adds yet another layer of irony via a sudden, mid-film shift away from the men’s crucible in the wilderness to another trio in the village they are struggling to reach: the village chief Sarge (Noel Sto. Domingo), the Captain (Popo Diaz), and Inggo (Joel Saracho, another Diaz regular), a conniving, malevolent figure who is later accused by those around him of spreading “speculation and fake news.”
Nevertheless, it is Inggo who offers the film’s second history lesson: a drunken yet authoritative retelling of the 250-year history of the Galleon Trade, which saw the Spanish, the Chinese, and the Malay successively abusing and profiting off of the land and the people of the Philippines. Among the colonizers’ “contributions,” Inggo notes, was their role in the creation of Hugaw’s central myths, which were initially intended as a ploy to dissuade visitors to the island who would have uncovered the invaders’ stashed contraband. Even as Inggo unveils the source of these legends, however, he remains as susceptible to them as any others. Just as Baldomero and Andres grow increasingly fixated on the Black Horse, Inggo is obsessed with the Jar of Truth, believing that possession of it will grant him success. He and Andres’ concerns are soon set against each other when the latter finally arrives in the village, alone.
Andres’ recounting of what became of his companions elicits another layer of Diaz’s play with narrative. Rather than remaining fixed on the narrator himself, as in the earlier monologues by Baldomero and Inggo, Andres’ story is actually visualized in a flashback sequence; however, in Genus Pan’s final moments we see this sequence a second time, independent of the storyteller’s biased influence. This scene, which functions as a revelation, can be seen as a synecdochic representation of the film’s broader goals: both identifying the parallels between the brutal exploitations of the past and those of the present, and exposing those colonizer-spawned falsities that still govern the realities of the colonized.