▶︎ Genus Pan screens in the BFI London Film Festival 11-14 October 2020 on BFI Player.
Following a run of high concept epics, Filipino director Lav Diaz returns to comparatively modest terrain with Genus Pan, winner of the Best Director prize in the Orizzonti section at 2020’s Venice Film Festival. Named after the scientific classification for chimpanzees, the film, an expansion of one of the director’s recent shorts, examines human nature at its most primal level – not unfamiliar territory for Diaz, though its spartan form and psychological rigour lend it an immediacy arguably not seen in his work in a number of years.
As the film opens, a team of gold miners is seen collecting their pay from a greedy boss demanding an additional cut of each man’s already meagre wages. Nearing the end of the season and fed up with being cheated, three of the workers – twenty-something Andres (Don Melvin Boongaling) and the middle-aged Paulo (Bart Guingona) and Baldomero (Nanding Josef), the latter of whom is also taking a portion of his comrades’s income in exchange for arranging their contract – decide to cut their losses and return by boat to their home island of Hungaw, a journey that will prove even more grave and dehumanising than the dangerous and exploitative environment from which they’ve fled.
Shooting in his customary widescreen black-and-white, Diaz (who, in addition to serving as director, writer, editor and cinematographer, also composed the film’s music) captures these scene-setting passages from a distance, his camera ever so slightly removed from the action and positioned near ground level to quietly observe the mounting tension. As the trio ships off, their uneasy bond – Andres is a budding firebrand trying desperately to provide for his ailing sister, while longtime friends Paulo and Baldomero share a violent secret that threatens to compromise their alliance – quickly starts to fray as ulterior motives and differing ideologies come to the fore, fostering an air of mistrust amongst the group.
Arriving at a remote beach on an unpopulated edge of Hungaw, the men embark on an arduous trek through the jungle that will test their will and faith in one another as they make their way inland. In this extended midsection, which bridges the trio’s journey with various acts of violence transpiring back home with the local militia and an unstable villager named Inngo (Joel Saracho) who develops a troubling obsession with Andres’s family, Diaz allows the group dynamic to gradually take shape against a backdrop of amorality and paganism; the plight of each man, perverted by the island’s colonial history and its deep-rooted mythology, adds nuance to the film’s wider depiction of cruelty and cultural trauma.
Structured around a Rashomon-esque episode in which a violent act by one member of the group is revisited and called into question after being told to the local community, Genus Pan is one of Diaz’s most pointed critiques of his country’s collective unconscious. After his radical period musical Season of the Devil (2018) and the future-shock sci-fi of The Halt (2019), the film’s contemporary trappings can feel unsettlingly commensurate with – and indeed, almost indistinguishable from – the director’s more allegorical efforts.
Diaz’s view of his country’s ongoing history of violence against its own populace, from Marcos to Duterte to leaders not yet fathomed, remains steadfast in its sentiments, though he continues to find fascinating angles – here, literally so – at which to approach the same basic and unsparing concerns. While blunt, it’s a necessary reminder of the quotidian nature of violence under fascism, and thus a work sadly relevant far removed from its cultural and geographic context.