With Mula I have seen more Lav Diaz films on a big screen than of any other slow-film director. A bizarre situation, given that Diaz’s films are so very long that not many cinemas dare include them in their program. But there seems to be a special attraction to his films, though, and they keep popping up, especially in Europe. Perhaps it is the length, perhaps it is the subject matter. In any case, Mula received fantastic reviews after the first screening in Locarno last week. I find it rather surprising. Critics loved Norte because it was so different from his other works. In Mula, Diaz returns to the aesthetics we are very much accustomed to. Nevertheless, critics generally loved it. I hope this is the beginning of a genuine appreciation of his work.
To me, Mula is Diaz’s Film Zero. It stands at the very beginning of his filmmaking if you consider the topic of the film. It is set two years before the declaration of Martial Law in 1972. It completes a trilogy that was never intended to be a trilogy at all. Mula depicts the time before the declaration of Martial Law; Evolution of a Filipino Family is about life under Martial Law; and Batang West Side is a post-Marcos film that follows a detective who, while solving the murder of a young Filipino, struggles with his own traumas.
I watched the film twice. The first time I found the ending incredibly frustrating, the very fact of which led me to think that the film is actually the beginning of everything we have already seen by Diaz in the past. My doctoral thesis focuses on the representation of trauma in Melancholia, Encantos and Florentina Hubaldo. The (psychological) wound has already been inflicted. What actually happened to the protagonists is hardly ever shown, but talked about. Something happened, and we see the characters’ suffering. Mula is, in chronological terms, set before trauma even occurs, which feels weird if you’re familiar with Diaz’s work.
But this very weirdness makes it so powerful. Truth is, Mula is about something creeping up on you. You know that Martial Law is coming. You know about the military takeover that wasn’t meant to be one. Officially. A lie, as we know. Yet, the point is that because I have seen almost all of Diaz’s works, I already knew the results of the “Filipino Nightmare”, as he described it in Locarno. It thus became a psychologically stressful film, more so than some of his other films. The reason for this is that you’re totally helpless. You know it’s coming. You know that the small barrio and its people will slowly vanish, and you also know that you can’t do anything about it. Again, as is the case in so many of his films, Diaz creates a slow tour de force for the viewer, often positioning him/her similar to the way he positions the characters.
With “only” 338 minutes running time, Mula is one of Diaz’s shorter films, but it’s very much in tune with his other works, with the exception of Norte, perhaps. He returns to black-and-white, which gives the film an impressive look of poverty and suffering. The film was shot and is set in a part of the Philippines that still has no electricity. It’s a dangerous part of the country. This shows commitment of director and crew – they risked a lot living there for a while to get the shoot done. On the other hand, for the first time, I believe, we see the beautiful coastline of the Philippines. An outstanding characteristic of the film, to me, is the use of a coastline – high waves, strong winds, rocks. They all contribute to the feeling of something ominous coming. A storm is coming, literally.
There isn’t much I would like to say about the content of the film yet. I would run the risk of giving away too much and I will also need time to process the film. Aesthetically, Mula is once more a stunning demonstration of Diaz’s eye for capturing not only his Malay culture (he actually refers to him as a Malay filmmaker), but also the trauma of his people. One actress, in particular, stands out in her contribution to this feeling of imminent misery: Joselina, a handicapped person like no other, portrayed in such a realistic fashion that Diaz had difficulties arguing that the role has been played by an actress, who is not handicapped at all. Joselina is the character who makes you want to close your eyes and shut your ears. We see similar treatments in Florentina and Encantos. She is the embodiment of a battered society. I can’t put it into more powerful words, which her portrayal actually deserves.
Mula is a serious contender for winning the competition in Locarno. It is a strong combination of Diaz’s beautiful aesthetics, his exploration of the trauma of a country, and the comparatively short length. I witnessed a conversation between Diaz and a viewer of his films. The viewer said that he was overwhelmed by the power of the film, and that he would have liked to stay in the auditorium for longer. This is strangely enough always the case with Diaz’s films. The length of his films do sound ridiculous, but once you watch it you feel as if more should be said. Mula is no different. It’s a journey into the Filipino psyche, and Diaz cut to the end of the film before the trauma actually begins. There is more, a lot more, pieces of which you can find in several other of his films. Mula is merely the beginning, an exploration of a creeping nightmare that is yet to come. Just how will this nightmare end? Will it ever end? Diaz may show us…