Credit: Epicmedia/Sine Olivia Pilipinas/Films Boutique/Rosa Filmes/Tier Pictures/ARTE France Cinéma
by Daniel Gorman Featured Film

Essential Truths of the Lake — Lav Diaz

August 16, 2023

As yet another Hong Sang-soo project makes the rounds, surely to be followed in four to six months by another, even newer film, it’s worth reflecting on just how prolific Lav Diaz is, too. While Hong has turned out 17 movies in the last decade, Diaz has managed 14. The most obvious difference, of course, is that one Diaz film tends to be anywhere from three to five times longer than the average Hong. The Filipino director’s latest effort, Essential Truths of the Lake, runs 210 minutes, making it only slightly shorter than the runtimes of Hong’s last three films combined. The ludicrously prolific nature of these two artists throws the laborious mechanics of the average Hollywood narrative feature into sharp relief; Hong and Diaz’s working methods reflect not only their own unique sensibilities, but also a repudiation of how “normal” films are made. Small crews, a stable of recurring collaborators, relatively simple digital cinematography, and proudly regional locations (with a few notable exceptions for each) allow both directors to work quickly and keep their budgets low.

Indeed, within these parameters, they are allowed to make virtually anything they want, following any tangent or idiosyncrasy they please: Hong’s In Water is purposefully filmed out of focus; Diaz’s Season of the Devil is a musical and History of Ha features a ventriloquist dummy as one of its main characters. Still, one shouldn’t push a comparison between the two men too far; their formal and philosophical differences surely outweigh their similarities. But both offer a different way of approaching narrative film, typically an expensive, industrial art form that in their hands becomes personal, diaristic, sketched out, and always unfinished — ideas are fluid, continued on from one film to the next, like a run-on sentence. This process — rendering the “epic” on the smallest possible scale — is essential to Diaz’s process, and the foundation of his political action.

Diaz’s 2022 film When the Waves Are Gone was a crime yarn loosely inspired by The Count of Monte Cristo. Lt. Hermés Papauran (John Lloyd Cruz), a disgraced police investigator cast out of society for beating his wife and assaulting a colleague, finds himself on a collision course with a recently released criminal who he had sent to prison years earlier. Essential Truths of the Lake, then, is a prequel to Waves, introducing us to Hermés several years before the events of that film, when he is still (seemingly) happily married and has not yet descended into the depths of violent despair we know his future holds. Here, he is obsessed with discovering the whereabouts of Esmeralda Stuart, known as the “Philippine Eagle,” and who has been missing, and presumed dead, since 2005. As is typical for this period of Diaz’s career, he is also concerned with the drug policies and extra-judicial killings facilitated by the Duterte regime. Stuart’s activism is shown via flashback to include performances dressed in elaborate costume and working with domestic abuse survivors to raise awareness about intimate partners violence, and her disappearance becomes a metaphor of sorts for the ongoing collapse of Filipino society; a loss of innocence, perhaps, or an awareness that state-sponsored violence corrupts everything it touches.

The symbolism would be obvious and heavy-handed without Diaz’s steadfast commitment to duration, forcing audiences to fully experience the heaviness of all this grief. The director’s films are always accumulating — plot, characters, dialogue, all piling up over the course of his distended runtimes; shots are often quite long, lasting several minutes, but also simplistic in their construction. There are no snaking steadicam takes, no elaborate trickery. If figures are speaking to each other, Diaz simply sets the camera down and lets the conversation play out. There’s no traditional continuity editing here, no shot-counter-shot or inserts to closeups, no bouncing back and forth from closeups to medium, head-and-shoulder shots; for example, when Hermés interviews one of Esmeralda’s ex-boyfriends, a man gradually revealed over the course of a long conversation to be drug dealer, the camera simply observes the two men at a table. Essential Truths of the Lake, like all of Diaz’s films, approaches the avant-garde simply by eliminating the extraneous — no establishing shots as people go from place to place (a penchant he shares with Rivette), nor any real delineation between dream sequences and reality, or flashbacks within the narrative proper. It all flows together, a slipstream of shared experiences.

As always, reality intervenes into Diaz’s fiction, here represented by the 2000 Taal volcano eruption in Batangas; in the aftermath, Hermés shifts his desperate investigation to the ash-strewn lands surrounding the volcano, layers of soot further burying any vestige of hope of finding evidence. And earlier in the film, Hermés interviews a documentary filmmaker who had worked with Esmeralda, the woman’s film (made up for this narrative) sharing space with Bergman’s Persona and Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s Karnal, both very real movies. Predictably, there’s a lot more incident in Essential Truths than any brief synopsis can describe; Hermés’ travels find him meeting all manner of people, his investigation slowly transforming from something concrete and practical to something altogether more oblique. As he begins to slowly deteriorate under the psychic pressure of his existential malaise, we see the beginnings of the skin condition that will continue to plague him in Waves, while frequent phone calls to his off-screen family suggest that his prolonged absence is what will eventually lead to his wife’s infidelity in the later film. It’s in this negotiation between Diaz’s most recent two works, and their joint reflection of our present, that we are able to locate what’s perhaps the best compliment one can offer: that the combined powers of Waves and Essential Truths suggest Diaz is likely the only filmmaker capable of adapting Roberto Bolaño’s mighty 2666, arguably the essential document of a modern world driven to the point of madness by the fallout of the 20th century. It’s a bleak worldview, to be sure, but one that we must all navigate. Continuing to make art is sometimes the best we can hope to do.

Published as part of Locarno Film Festival 2023 — Dispatch 2.