Director: Lav Diaz
Stars: Joel Lamangan, Piolo Pascual, Shaina Magdayao
Shot and assembled in 2019 before the pandemic came the dominate the world, Lav Diaz’s quasi-sci-fi dystopian epic The Halt (Ang Hupa) now seems phenomenally prescient. Running close to 5 hours, his film documents a tapestry of lives in Manila circa 2034. Volcanic eruptions have blotted out the sun, and a lethal flu – the Dark Killer – has halved the population of South East Asia. Crowds jostle at vaccination centres while despot President Nirvano ‘Nirv’ Navarra (Joel Lamangan) spies on his enemies, plots their demise and maintains an increasingly tenuous stranglehold on the Philippines.
Shot in starkly beautiful black and white, Diaz’s Altman-esque satire largely eschews score or source music and plays out over the course of numerous long-takes; the positioning of his camera recalls the framing of Pedro Costa; his pacing the humanistic patience of Tsai Ming-liang. Even as an artifact just to look upon, The Halt is an immensely gratifying experience to just languish in, perfect for our hot and humid summer.
Engage with it and you’ll discover a richly conceived and considered portrait of modern-day Manila prodded outward toward the fringes of fantasy. The permanent night might easily be read as a metaphor for the blotted glass ceiling that the Filipino people perceive above and around them, when considered on the world stage. Neglect that has been internalised. The Halt depicts a country frustrated with how it is stymied; not perceived seriously (if and when it is perceived at all). It is as though the country were stuck within its own clouded snow-globe – a sensation shared by all communities held in the fist of corruption and dictatorship.
An almost permanent rain seems to fall on the city. This deluge becomes a visual reminder of oppression and, as it keeps most of the citizens cooped up in their homes, serves as a smart cinematic simile for the lockdowns we’ve all experienced over the past 18 months. Characters seem held in place, often against their will. They pace or crouch, and Diaz’s extended takes create an aura of listless time. That The Halt runs to 276 minutes may sound punishing, but Diaz relaxes into the kind of cadence that makes time seem irrelevant, and his world is so well-developed that the myriad micro-dramas within it all feel worthy of inclusion.
We flit between episodic encounters with characters; some recur, others are one-shot visitors, giving the overall piece the feel of an anthology. Yet there are through-lines. Most commonly we return to the sheltered, delusional and privileged world of President Navarra, whose actions range from those of the doddering eccentric to the sagely evil. He’ll potter among his cacti, miles away, then he’ll demand the slow death of a perceived enemy, along with documentary footage of the event so he can relish in it. All the while, drones buzz in the air around his compound like flies around a rotting carcass. In the streets, meanwhile, they’re a threatening reminder of the surveillance state. Even inaction is valid; telling. A young swimmer cycles through dives at Navarra’s estate and the film feels like it has looped.
Mid-film (approximately) we’re treated to a rock group’s performance at Club 1976. That year was an important one for punk music, and here, as then, a guitar band feels radical. The lack of music elsewhere in the picture makes the performance feel seismic, and also representative of defiance to the established order. As The Halt goes on, defiance becomes a key theme. When Defense Minister Lorenzo Inakay (Bart Guingona) laughs off the threats of Navarra’s henchmen, its a gleeful middle-finger to the establishment, and a forecast for the Trumpian president’s loosening grip on the state. And, in the anger of a resistance marksman who misses his shot at a dignitary, we appreciate the frustration and impatience for change.
Diaz doesn’t hit all the time. He makes repeated connections between lesbianism and tyranny, but doesn’t particularly explore or explain why (are we to assume his female generals find escape in these hedonistic clinches?). And the decision to show Navarra drinking and cross-dressing in his spare time smacks of an outdated attitude to gender fluidity and the trans community. It feels thrown in to make Navarra appear loony or eccentric. A more successful scene of character shading is the one in which he visits his ailing mother and collapses at her heels, sobbing like a baby, extending a Freudian consideration to his actions elsewhere.
Across the span of the film we feel keenly the sense of a country resenting its lack of identity, fighting back against a kind of collective amnesia that has fallen over it like a malady since what feels like an enforced and incomplete westernisation. This, perhaps, is the long night that has a real hold on the Philippines, now and also in it’s imagined future. Diaz’ film is pessimistic in this sense, fearing that a cultural rebirth remains a far-off and uncertain prospect. But it also challenges that such an end is worth fighting for.
The size of The Halt may be intimidating, and it may only be a one-time watch, but carve out the time if you can. Some films are overlong at two hours. This one, nearly five, feels (mostly) justified. Even when characters dawdle, their dalliance speaks to a collective sense of waiting and unrest.