Flip through this year’s Berlinale programme and one film in the competition lineup immediately jumps out – if for no other reason than its length. Filipino cult filmmaker Lav Diaz’s A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery (Hele Sa Hiwagang Hapis) clocks in at 485 minutes and basically has the Berlinale Palast booked all day. For the sake of comparison: remember when people were complaining Palme d’Or winner Winter Sleep (2014) was too damn long? That Turkish epic ran 196 minutes.
Due to obvious logistical constraints, Lullaby doesn’t have the usual evening / late afternoon gala premiere. Instead, its official premiere is relegated to early morning to coincide with the normally glamour-free press screening. And so at 9:30 yesterday morning, evening gowns were already flowing down the red carpet, a surreal sight in and of itself.
After the director and several cast members were introduced to enthusiastic applause, the packed theatre plunged into darkness as we journeyed back to late 19th century Philippines, a country still fighting for its independence from Spanish colonisers.
Considering that Diaz is seen as a key figure of the so-called slow cinema, it’s rather unexpected that so much happens in the first hour of the film. That said, with a huge group of characters popping up in different narrative strands, sporting names like Cesaria Belarmino, Lazaro Makapagal, Gregoria de Jesus (who is sometimes also referred to as Oryang)… it’s by no means an easy first act to follow. In fact, 90 minutes into the film and you might still find yourself grappling with who’s who and which role each plays in the history of the Filipino revolution.
This far along in a film festival, exhausted journalists doze off even in romantic comedies starring Will Smith. So by the time this black-and-white historical saga hit the two-hour mark, people sitting on both sides of this reviewer were already sound asleep. It didn’t help that as the movie went on about mysterious things like Katipunan’s and Tikbalang’s, it also gradually slowed down its pace. There would be what felt like interminable scenes featuring characters moving from one corner of the screen to the other or someone coughing their heart out for minutes on end. Looking at the rows ahead, bodies seemed to sink deeper down the seats and heads were dropping left and right.
Around 3.5 hours into the film, when this reviewer returned from a hasty trip to the toilet, he discovered his right-hand neighbour had thrown in the towel and joined the growing number of walk-outs, allowing for an ever-clearer field of vision.
Thirty minutes later, as the long absent characters Basilio and Isagani were brought back, most people in the audience were probably not just asking “Wait, who are these guys again?” but also – like panicked school kids counting down the seconds to recess – “Have they forgotten about that lunch break they promised?” Said break came just before 2pm. Like clubbers, all attendees were given a wrist band for re-entry and told to be back in an hour. Out in the fresh air and winter light, Potsdamer Platz felt dizzyingly three-dimensional.
You know, of course, that those returning after the break for more Lav are the hardcore cinephiles, and sure enough, in the second half of the screening, there were hardly any more walk-outs. This reviewer is not ashamed to admit, however, that the combined effect of a full stomach and little sleep sent him into fits of slumber after the room darkened again. On several occasions between the fifth and sixth hour, as three women continued their trek in the woods and two men carried an injured companion closer to safety, he’s had the disconcerting experience of actually dreaming subsequent dialogue in his semi-conscious state before jerking awake to see it’s not at all where it’s going. Yes, by then you’ve been hearing these people talk for so long their voice continues in your head even when your mind drifts off.
Thankfully it soon came the point where you get so tired you’re suddenly not tired anymore. And so the last three hours of this massive undertaking could again be thoroughly appreciated. You notice, for example, that it touches on both the macro- and absolutely microscopic by relaying individual and collective fates of a consistently abused people in meticulous detail. That it blends realist and surrealist depictions for a more rounded look at a country haunted by memory. Such sweep and specificity prove to overwhelm in the aggregate. And so the whopping runtime becomes part of the narrative itself and not merely a stunt or endurance test.
Which is not to say that Lullaby isn’t uneven in quality and forbiddingly cumbersome as a movie. For all its hypnotic, visually arresting shots of great mysticism there are ones that are conspicuously crude and ill-considered. For the singular out-of-body experience eight hours of film can provide, it also means overcoming serious, prolonged physical discomfort. Perhaps those who have seen it will thus wear it as a badge of honour, giving it an edge over the competition. In any case we wouldn’t count against this one come awards ceremony night. Interesting thought: traditionally the Berlinale shows the Golden Bear winner following the ceremony. Will guests to the gala be staying in the Berlinale Palast until 5am this year?