Dir.: Lav Diaz; Cast: John Lloyd Cruz, Shaima Magdayao, Hazel Orencio, Agot Isidra, Bart Guingona, Susan Africa, Reyhan Abcede; Philippines, Portugal, France, Singapore, Italy, Switzerland, UK 2023, 215 min.
Police inspector Hermes Papauran (Cruz), one of the country’s foremost investigators, is again the focus of this latest epos from Philippine auteur Lav Diaz. Essential Truths of the Lake serves as a prequel to his 2022 outing When the Waves are Gone that saw him haunted by a dark past and ready to meet his maker in a quest for the truth.
Investigating a murder case from 2005, in the last days of the bloody regime of President Duarte in 2020, Hermes is a troubled and rather destructive character who suffers occasional bouts of psoriasis and contingent physical afflictions brought on by his negative take on life.
On the banks of the titular Taal Lake, an atmospheric setting, Hermes is having a meeting with his female superior The Colonel about re-open the cold case of Esmeralda Stuart (Magdayao), a mythical beauty queen/cabaret star, who disappeared without trace in 2005. The Colonel agrees to re-open the investigation but warns Hermes about his family obligations in the face of the potentially perilous mission: “They want you back” states The Colonel, making clear that she is in control of proceedings.
Hermes interrogates the drug lord Jack Barquero (Guingona), one of the main suspects in the Stewart case, who then has him followed by his son Nick and three of his henchmen but a nearby volcano erupts, the ash destroying more clues in the case. We then return aesthetically and contents-wise to the Diaz matrix of old, and The Colonel sacks Hermes from the case, making him the prey rather than the pursuer. Meanwhile the beleaguered detective befriends Melchora (Africa) and loses a potential collaborator in his search for the truth; an old man dies of a sudden and suspicious heart attack. A cake seller – who might, or might not be connected to the original murder – is then killed by Melchora’s dog after trying to steal some of her papers, and the self-destructive Hermes is once again in the wilderness. Then Diaz comes up with a brilliant solution.
In contrast to his previous outings Diaz opts for a nuanced contemporary arthouse style, particularly in the cabaret scenes. Gone (at least for the time being) are the wild landscapes and isolated fighters that categorised his earlier works. Here we are merely spectators rather than protagonists drawn under the Diaz spell. At just 215 minutes The Lake is two films in one, the conventional opening giving way to a compelling detective thriller.
But Hermes no ordinary policeman, he soon emerges as the lonely fugitive in a self-inflicted exile, the Stuart case serving merely as a red herring in this existentialist landscape. The lake becomes a labyrinth and the detective is gradually swallowed up in a timeless vacuum created by Co-Dop Larry Manda. Diaz again captures the loneliness of his hero, circling the lake and finding nothing but volcano ashes. Hermes is clearly in need of help, and here we are invited to experience the savage jungle of his anguish – detective story or not – in this shortish feature (by Diaz standards!).
Lengthwise, there’s good news for diehard Diaz fans desperate to disappear into his lengthy epics: a twelve hour feature is now in the pipeline. AS
LOCARNO FILM FESTIVAL 2023