The many faces of the monster in ‘Ang Panahon ng Halimaw’

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Director Lav Diaz, prosthetic artist Daniel Palisa, and actor Noel Sto. Domingo talk about the creation of Chairman Narciso, the man with two faces whose presence haunts the barrio in which "Ang Panahon ng Halimaw" is set. Photo by DANIEL PALISA

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The season of the devil is upon us — and with it, the devil’s many faces.

This is the warning that hangs over critically acclaimed director Lav Diaz’s latest film, “Ang Panahon ng Halimaw,” which made its mainstream debut in select cinemas last May 30.

The rock opera debuted at the Berlin International Film Festival and bagged Best Picture at the Bildrausch Filmfest Basel in Switzerland. Headlining Piolo Pascual and Shaina Magdayao, the film clocks in at three hours and 54 minutes.

It is set during dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ martial law, after paramilitary forces are tapped by the government to help quell rebellion. As one can imagine, events take a turn for the abusive.

In the true fashion of Diaz, everything is stripped bare: the entire film is set in black and white; each long scene utilizes little more than a single camera angle, pushing the audience to observe all details of a scene; even the singing is done acapella, and no conversation takes place outside of it. The absence of instrumentals allows the project to play with silences and the break and vulnerability of its actors’ voices.

The narrative follows the poet Hugo Haniway (Pascual) and his wife Lorena (Magdayao) as she decides to take her medical practice to a barrio run by a man with two faces. Chairman Narciso (Noel Sto. Domingo) hardly appears, but his face and name is plastered and whispered all over town. When he finally arrives, he does nothing but screech in oration.

His presence haunts, but the origin of his second face is never explained. CNN Philippines Life spoke to director Lav Diaz, prosthetics artist Daniel Palisa, and actor Noel Sto. Domingo to talk about this unconventional monster — what he stood for, and what it took to bring him to life.

berlinale still 1.JPG In true Lav Diaz fashion, everything is stripped bare: the entire film is set in black and white; each long scene utilizes little more than a single camera angle, pushing the audience to observe all details of a scene; even the singing is done acapella, and no conversation takes place outside of it. Still from BERLIN INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL/WEBSITE

Many faces, many voices

Chairman Narciso initially was meant to have five faces — but with a limited amount of time and limited space on a shaved head, Diaz decided one was enough.

Palisa's process involved casting actor Noel Sto. Domingo's face, then using photo references from five specific, real life persons relevant to the film. He went through four different sculpts over the course of four and a half weeks. It was constructed so that “straight on it was Noel, but if you looked at it from different angles, it resembled those real-life references individually.”

When I asked who these inspirations were — I had thought the second face resembled former Senator and Marcos' Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile — Palisa declined to share.

“The character itself lends to a shadowy ambiguity, almost mythical quality, and by incorporating some recognizable attributes of these people into the design, it raises a mirror up to real life and what the film is trying to convey,” he said. “I think it's healthy for an audience to see who they see in Narciso.”

Apart from the second face, Narciso was characterized by incomprehensible speeches, which was followed by awe from his followers. He was deliberately unsubtitled — because there is no need, as Diaz puts it, to “explain the noises, gobbledygook and meaningless and empty claptraps that fooled millions ... of human beings.”

“There’s no slow, or fast, cinema. The same way as there’s no independent cinema and mainstream cinema. There’s just cinema. It’s all just fucking cinema.” — Lav Diaz

 

For the most part, Sto. Domingo himself could not understand the dialogue assigned to him. He also injected his own phrases, including “Gilla nena nu ngamin,” an Ibanag expression of hate.

Diaz had his own process for composing Narciso's dialogue — pulling from real speeches from strongmen such as Mao Zedong of China, Adolf Hitler of Germany, Benito Mussolini of Italy, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union, Francisco Franco of Spain, Idi Amin Dada of Uganda, and the Philippines' own Ferdinand Marcos.

“I took and reversed real speeches, lines and words uttered by dictators and self-absorbed leaders ... the new authoritarians and false messiahs, at pati na ‘yung sinasabi ng hambog na barangay tanod sa tabi na nanghuhuthot lagi sa tindahan ng kaawa-awang si Aling Maring,” said Diaz.

So although five faces could not fit in one head, Chairman Narciso is composed of much more than just two faces.

“In initial talks about the character, a Bible story came up where a demon introduced itself, saying 'My name is Legion, for we are many,'” Palisa recalled. “The Devil works in mysterious ways.”

panahon 2.jpeg Prosthetic artist Daniel Palisa's process involved casting actor Noel Sto. Domingo's face, then using photo references from five specific, real life persons relevant to the film. He went through four different sculpts over the course of four and a half weeks. It was constructed so that “straight on it was Noel, but if you looked at it from different angles, it resembled those real-life references individually." Photo by DANIEL PALISA

The narcissism of Narciso

When conceptualizing the villain, Palisa happened upon the song “Poor Edward” by Tom Waits, which draws from the urban legend of the two-faced 19th century Englishman Edward Mordake.

"According to the stories, the face would whisper horrible things to him in the night, smile when he was sad, and sneer when he was happy — which drove him to suicide at an early age," said Palisa.

However, Diaz notes that Mordake still was a man with a deep internal struggle. So while his legend was a starting point, it does not necessarily entail the character of Narciso was himself a victim. It makes one wonder: Was it the second face that possessed Narciso, or had the second face grown out of his own evil?

The character was undoubtedly one with agency. When asked about whether the man giving the order or the one carrying out the abuse is more culpable, actor Noel Sto. Domingo talked about command responsibility.

“To say that the real monsters are the ordinary men [who] perpetrate torture, that is as good as submitting to the alibis of a fascist in redirecting the blame to others,” said Sto. Domingo. “The mere fact that he enabled it goes to [show] that the tortures and other forms of evil is in servitude [to him].”

Mordake was likely a work of fiction, but the character of Narciso also finds mythological roots. The model was the Roman god Janus, a two-faced deity believed to look one way into the past and one way into the future, which was meant to symbolize beginnings, endings, transitions, and change; despots always promise change, and it is in transitions when a community tends to be vulnerable.

Perhaps the two faces are only a front for what a dictator truly sees: himself alone. For Sto. Domingo, Narciso's two faces are meant to “emphasize his narcissism.”

berlinale still 4.JPG Apart from the second face, Narciso was characterized by incomprehensible speeches, which was followed by awe from his followers. Diaz took and reversed "real speeches, lines and words uttered by dictators and self-absorbed leaders" like Mao Zedong of China, Adolf Hitler of Germany, Benito Mussolini of Italy, and the Philippines' own Ferdinand Marcos. Still from WEBSITE/BERLIN INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

Diaz, too, noted how historically many strongmen had an array of masks as they shifted from “sweet to scheming, caring to murderous, [and] loving to destructive.” He noted they did not feel remorse, guilt or shame.

“Most fascists, populists, [or] despots assume so many personas in their psyche; a mental malady; a mix of schizophrenia, psychosis, paranoia, derangement and an ego that’s larger than the world,” said Diaz. “They have a great yearning for power, the need to be in control, the need to be the center of everything; and the need to see everything.”

The otherworldly element of a demon running a barrio also plays with magic realism, as the townspeople do not question or even talk about Narciso's second face. Sto. Domingo believes this veil of fantasy helps make the story more palatable to viewers. It also contrasts with more straightforward parts of the narrative, such as how murdered innocents are adorned with a carton reading “REBELDE AKO. HUWAG TULARAN,” in a scathing parallel to killings under President Rodrigo Duterte’s term.

“It is easy to be preachy, but often times, it does not serve its purpose,” said Sto. Domingo. “Sometimes, to be effective is better if it is [made] surreal.”

For Diaz, fantasy, politics, and religion all intersect. He noted that from the arrival of Islam and Christianity, conversion — which tapped all these elements — was part of the “fracturing of our culture.”

“Fantastical and mythological figures are forceful evocations of man’s inability to explain the world and their nature,” said Diaz. “[They] provide deeper anthropological [or] ethnological view of societies that created them.”

berlinale still 2.JPG "Ang Panahon ng Halimaw" follows the poet Hugo Haniway (Piolo Pascual) and his wife Lorena (Shaina Magdayao) as she decides to take her medical practice to a barrio run by a man with two faces. Still from WEBSITE/BERLIN INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

berlinale still 3.JPG Shaina Magdayao as Lorena, a fearless young doctor who disappears shortly after opening her clinic. Still from WEBSITE/BERLIN INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

A call of the times

The film is also a result of a trying political climate: Marcos was buried in Libingan ng mga Bayani. The House approved the abolition of the Presidential Commission on Good Government, the agency tasked with recovering Marcos' wealth. Marcos' son Bongbong is pushing his bid for the vice presidency.

Diaz likens all this to a Kafka-esque nightmare — “but then you realize that it’s true, its really happening.”

“Ang Panahon ng Halimaw” is his response to that. Some have remarked it is Diaz's most accessible work yet, even as it remain unconditionally, unconventionally a Lav Diaz film. Its narrative does not even have a star — not even the ever-leading man Piolo Pascual, who is just one character in a strong cast.

Sto. Domingo said that giving in to the sensibilities of those outside the creative process and adjusting to commercial viability is the last thing on Diaz's mind. “Otherwise, the finished product will only become a work of a craftsman and not an artist,” he said.

Diaz is more blunt about it: “There’s no slow, or fast, cinema. The same way as there’s no independent cinema and mainstream cinema. There’s just cinema,” he said. “It’s all just fucking cinema.”

He says he won't compromise his canvas to fit a template, and the masses cannot be “[rushed to] embrace a new form.” He believes the onus is on filmmakers “to struggle and commit to create and nurture” a new culture of viewing.

“Mas mahalaga sa akin ang isang Pilipinong nanood at nabago ang pananaw niya sa buhay kaysa sa libu-libong nanood na ang nakuha lang ay asukal at kolesterol ng popcorn at Coca-Cola,” said Diaz. “The urgency is in the struggle to discourse on the truth, or at least, be nearer the truth.”

fb still 1.jpg “Most fascists, populists, [or] despots assume so many personas in their psyche; a mental malady; a mix of schizophrenia, psychosis, paranoia, derangement and an ego that’s larger than the world,” said Diaz, explaining the concept behind the two faces of Narciso. “They have a great yearning for power, the need to be in control, the need to be the center of everything; and the need to see everything.” Photo from ANG PANAHON NG HALIMAW/FACEBOOK

Sto. Domingo also believes “Ang Panahon ng Halimaw” is a commentary on bravery — or the lack of it, the need of it, in the face of a dictator.

“Some people say, in the season of the devil, the most convenient way to live is to side with the tyrant,” said Sto. Domingo.

He observes how “mob mentality” is led by politicians who side with the tyrant, cultural workers, and media men who betray their profession to help shape his image, and ordinary people subscribing to a  “cult of personality,” who are also victims of the tyrant's abuse.

“[Mob mentality is] headed by the politicians, cultural workers who are not cultural workers, or a class of learned men. For that, they are a force to reckon with,” said Sto. Domingo.

Apart from the obvious demon, there is also a mythological way of seeing in the film. The paramilitary talk about the Wise Man, the Snake, the Owl, the aswang, the tikbalang — otherworldly creatures which are used to subvert the community's thirst for certainty.

“Mas mahalaga sa akin ang isang Pilipinong nanood at nabago ang pananaw niya sa buhay kaysa sa libu-libong nanood na ang nakuha lang ay asukal at kolesterol ng popcorn at Coca-cola.” — Lav Diaz

“Most dictators, despots and populists are very good at creating their own myths, and they thrive on the ignorance of the masses,” said Diaz.

The pseudo-certain, said Diaz, is fed through pompous posturing, promises, and propaganda. Diaz believes artists have a responsibility to engage — the filmmaker in responsible cinema, the writer in writing toward truth and justice.

“There’s the greater role of the Filipino artist — to be part of the seemingly endless struggle to emancipate the Filipino,” said Diaz. “Socrates must go back to the agora and plaza. Masama bang hilinging tapusin na ni Pepe [Rizal] ang naudlot niyang nobela?”

The only way to find what is truly certain, he says, is truth — even when it seems like truth is dead. The director wondered, then, if hope was the new truth.

“Hope is uncertain, even utterly abstract, or evil as one philosopher declared — there’s the irony — but it can be man’s great thread to hold on and overcome,” said Diaz.

When does the season of the devil truly take place? If anything, the film emphasizes it is not only confined to the Marcos regime, nor is it solely applicable to contemporary times. The devil lurks among us across all eras. It only rears its ugly head when we pay heed to it, when we elect it to positions of power — or, perhaps worse — when we let it stay there.