If you type “the heart of the heart of darkness” on Google Maps, the peppy red pin will likely rest on the town of Ginto. Amenities include: panoramas of sunbaked greyness, perfect for long, wistful walks; discreet meetings with the town’s Payam; and a functional town clinic whose angelic doctor seemed to have gone without a trace. No one dares leave it a negative review, especially one on its backwards-speaking, dictating gargoyle, Chairman Narciso, lest you want to take the town up on one of its few perks—a wide-open casket adorned with a cardboard signage, “Rebelde Ako. ‘Wag Tularan.” Somewhere, Joseph Conrad thinks of not going.
The message, suffice it to say, is not lost on Lav Diaz’s transcendent “Ang Panahon ng Halimaw”, a red-eyed, straight-from-the-larynx sing off that presses on the recursive ails of a country so sad it’s funny and so funny it’s sad. At less than four briskly edited hours, the film is Diaz’s most direct yet, pulling no punches at the hellions that roost in our nation. No longer is the point to poignantly lament on the horrors of yesteryear. Like clockwork, the ghouls of our past respawn at the present. The point, this time, is to take action. And to flip everyone’s switch, Diaz, interestingly, turns to the art and science of song.
Thus springs the first Lav Diaz musical—or rather, non-musical. The songs, written by Diaz himself, are sung entirely in acapella. No music accompanies the words, and thusly they leave a blistering lash when they hit. They’re repeated throughout scenes, arcs, and even through the film itself, intoned as though prayers from the nightmare in which they exist. The repetition, too, might be literal echoes of the gruesome takeaways from our previous tragedies, repeated because they seem to never be completely imbibed. In lesser hands, this gesture can seem didactic, but here it plays out with weighted bitterness and yearning, reaching a crescendo with a confrontation about our people’s inherent inability to wield change.
On the defending side of that is Hugo (Piolo Pascual), a poet and artist disenchanted by the circus that is the current reign of the Marcoses. His wife, Lorena (Shaina Magdayao), shackled to her blind idealism, goes to the town of Ginto, where Narciso’s cronies are spreading myths that help them get away with their horrendous doings. At the beginning of the film, Ahas (Joel Saracho) and Tenyente (Hazel Orencio, unmistakable in a crew cut but magnetic as she’d been in past Diaz films), connive in an ingenious plan that essentially curses the town with fiction—the very same the country’s enduring now. Later, an innocent townsperson is found lifeless by the fields, a cardboard sign tied around his neck. Who might have done such a horrible thing? The vigilantes! Nah, it’s the…asuangs, the Kwago, that dreadful crone!
One doesn’t need to look past the cruelty. The cruelty of these actions is the point. Diaz gets as close as his art permits to deliver the most precious joke permits. That Duterte and his legion of netherworldly trolls are all but Narciso’s spawns. The title might suggest that devilry is in vogue, and while trends go out fast as they come in, it’s our due undertaking to make certain of that. That this season walks out the door. That this piece of fiction, no matter deftly wrought, should remain just that.