Genus Pan is a short film, by the standards of Lav Diaz, the Filipino film-maker whose output includes 2008’s Melancholia (7 hours 30 minutes) and 2011’s Century of Birthing (6 hours). The film that made his name on the festival circuit, 2013’s Norte, the End of History, clocks in at a mere 4 hours 10 minutes – I remember watching it on two separate DVDs. So those of a relatively short attention span but in love with the concept of “slow cinema” (a term Diaz doesn’t like) will be cock a hoop over Genus Pan, a paltry 2 hours 30 minutes.
It’s a simple story, about three poor men who have made a bit of money by working away at the mines. Instead of going back to their village the usual way – and paying every minor official a bung en route – they decided to be smart, hire a boat to their island and then trek across inhospitable terrain back to their destination.
Andres (Don Melvin Boongaling), Paulo (Bart Guingona) and Baldo (Nanding Josef) are a mismatched threesome. Andres is the youngest and most disgruntled, Baldo the oldest and a bit of a tough nut with a sideline in money-lending, Paolo is the religious fanatic whose peacemaking skills are brought into play as the journey continues and the relationship between Andres and Baldo starts to fracture.
Diaz’s usual style is evident – the picture is black and white, the camera is fixed, the takes are long. If a boat enters from the right of the frame, you can bet you’re going to be watching that boat as it again exits the frame on the left some while later.
And things, in this film, do tend to enter right and exit left, unusual enough in a left-to-right cinematic world to be faintly unsettling and carrying a meaning I could not divine – is Diaz trying to keep us on our toes? Or is he suggesting unnatural deeds are in the offing? As I say, no idea.
Also notable is how often Andres, Paulo and Baldo are shot squatting, crouched together, like a chimpanzee pod – genus pan is the subdivision of hominid that houses chimps and bonobos – Diaz is onto something about the base animal nature of humans. Just in case we don’t get it, there is a moment in the film when the three men listen to a radio, and a professor (surely Diaz himself?) is heard explaining that only the fully developed human brain tends towards the altruism of a Mahatma Gandhi or a Mother Teresa.
Battle lines established, we then watch to see which way these three are going to go, developed and caring, less developed and barbarous. Without ruining what isn’t a particularly plot-driven story, I’ll just say that things take a turn for the worse and not everyone makes it out of Dodge.
This leads us out of the forest and back to the village, where two more groups of three humans take up the narrative slack – a vicious trio of corrupt cops and the womenfolk of the three men.
Diaz is not aiming for a cinematic experience as we understand it. Geoffrey Chaucer might be closer to the mark, with Genus Pan bearing traces of The Pardoner’s Tale (which also did not end well). And Diaz’s extremely stylised and almost static tableaux are also medieval – this is drama as an audience watching a mummers play might have experienced it. Nuance? Psychology? Forget it. Instruction is all. Motivation comes in the form of big animal urges. We fight. We kill. We eat. We piss. Or at least that’s how it goes when you are not in possession of the advanced brain of a Gandhi.
Subtle it is not, nor uplifting, though the acting is easy and natural when we’re not watching displays of extremely stylised violence. Nor is there an awful ot of human decency on display, but then that is the point. Without guidance – the Ten Commandments start to pop up later on – humans are lost.
At another juncture masked penitents cross the screen, flagellating themselves to atone for their sins. It feels a bit like that watching the film too. It’s an admirable work, if you enjoy being bludgeoned, and does Diaz achieve what he sets out to do. But it isn’t a compelling watch and simply isn’t in the same league as the remarkable El Norte.
© Steve Morrissey 2021