Genus Pan is in the minority of Lav Diaz’ narratives. Diaz’ narratives are once infested by an enlightened intellectual, intruders or visitors like in Pasolini’s Teorema (1968), often talking down to people or spouting sophistries. What Genus Pan does is not to provide a platform for these intruders to speak further, but to give a suspicious look against these enlightened ideologues and reveal them in their nakedness as part of the state-structure of violence. This shifts a Diaz narrative from a Dostoevskian trope to a darker Kafkaesque realm where boundaries are clearer but the choices are more difficult.
The film flows as a continuous interaction between the characters and their environment. After their stint at a Gold mining site, Andres (Don Melving Bongaling), Paulo (Bart Guingona) and Baldo (Nanding Josef) sail back home to Hugaw Island where they reside. The island is both a place of horror and intrigue. Baldo reminisces stories of how the island owes its name, which translates as “dirty,” to American and Japanese colonizers corrupting the island during the war. Andres, on the other hand, is concerned of the violence that’s currently taking place on the island as enacted by a “Captain” and a “Sergeant” who are reigning over like kings. The island has a third face: a mystical one that is haunted by premonitions of mountain tribes who are at the forefront of militarist violence.
The three sides of the island significantly play on how the film unfolds. We mostly follow Andres, Paulo and Baldo addressing their own conflicts to each other along the way. Baldo takes cuts from Paulo and Andres’ incomes for having them employed over at the mine. Andres is angry going home as he feels cheated by their manager and Baldo who both took cuts from his income when he sorely needs money for his sister’s hospital bills. Something has struck Paulo’s chord as he is reminded by Baldo of their past as child performers at a Circus. The rising tension between the three does not come easy in the wilderness of the island forest through which they are trekking.
This tension is contrasted in the film by a radio broadcast of a scientist who’s presenting a fictional analysis of the levels of Homo species intellect in relation to their capacity to desire and brain-size. This is what the title of the film suggests: how self-interestedness results in a devolution of man to an animal, a chimpanzee in particular. The broadcast however, is a thing of suspicion: does it come from a popular show, as signified by its bubbly radio host, and not a specialist/scientific program? Why is the scientists’ example of who he considers as humans includes figures whose brains can’t be objectively observed, like Jesus or Buddha? This suspicious set up of the broadcast places the claims about the universality of Genus Pan’s message to test. Instead of a universal commentary of whether “are we being humans or just talking animals”, to consider the suspicious broadcast as part of the conditions of the islands as isolated and violent, places Genus Pan on a more particular and more relevant plane of discourse.
Midway through the film, we are introduced to the other end of Hugaw Island: a small square table with a drunken man named Inggo (Joel Saracho) who tells stories to a uniformed officer he refers to as “Sarge” (Noel Sto. Domingo) and his posse on how the myths about the island started.
We can see a consistent thread of such characterizations in Diaz’ works that depends on the characters’ relationship with power. His films reveal the flaws of the ordinary people, to the extent that they are exposed very violently, they are at least given more nuance than figures of authorities. At least Andres, Paulo and Baldo live their lives repenting for the things that they are sorry for. Authorities in a Lav Diaz film, like Sarge here or Inggo, are mindless evil doers trapped in the cycle of corruption and chain of command.
The myth-mongering Inggo plays a crucial role on the way the story closes and to give more texture on the very character of the island itself. Myths and militarist violence mingle in an isolated place. This is not a stranger in Diaz’ films. It seems to be the only way to make sense of the weird entanglement of the history of a nation that he tries to capture in works as early as Death in the Land of Encantos (2007) and From What is Before (2014). What is different with Genus Pan is how Hugaw island’s very isolation reveals its extreme vulnerability. This exposition is also what made Genus Pan less of a “universal” look at human nature but a clear declaration of political position. While violence is depicted as exercised both by the protagonists we follow and the island authorities, the film made it clear how the authorities are not the most reliable ethical agents.
The thread that connects the island’s violent authorities and the aforementioned radio intellectual lies in their production of myths to justify their actions. In the on-going debates on fascism and disinformation, what Genus Pan contributes is to put forward in film what has been a reality to the Philippines: that disinformation and violence always go hand-in-hand, especially in the case of state authorities. To see and depict militarist violence is easy. But the way Genus Pan parallels the radio ideologue posing as a scientist with this violence is profound: while it directly paints fascists, being “greedy” as not different than monkeys, it also does the similar violence to the likes of Andres who’s merely seeking for power to enact proper justice.
This look of suspicion against the figure of the intellectual, is, perhaps, a corrective to the moral ambiguity of Diaz’ 2016 film A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery. Ultimately, the film speaks to intellectuals. It’s as though Diaz is not asking them anymore to reflect on the realities he’s trying to present, but to ask themselves: what are they doing to Andres? When Andres lets out a scream, are they also going to make him silent like the religious Paulo did? Are their new forms of knowledge, despite their good intentions, invalidating the struggles of the likes of Andres? By trying to fulfill their enlightened humanity, are they becoming instruments of state violence? Genus Pan can’t be more clear of its position: it judges the evil authorities, looks at the middle forces in suspicion, and gives nuance to the oppressed.
Genus Pan was streamed as part of the San Diego Asian Film Festival which ran1 from October 23-31 2020.