“For those following Lav Diaz’s films for the past decade or so, When the Waves Are Gone’s themes have already been tackled in his previous efforts, some even more extensively. But given the times we are living in now, particularly given the political climate in the Philippines, no matter how bleak, haunting, and hopeless they may be, these points are worth repeating over and over again.”
In 2016 Lav Diaz made history on the Lido when he won the coveted Golden Lion award for Ang Babaeng Humayo (The Woman Who Left), about a woman on a mission of taking revenge on her former lover. It was the first time for a Filipino filmmaker to win the top award in any of the major film festivals. Six years later, Diaz is back in Venice with Kapag Wala Nang Mga Alon (When the Waves Are Gone), another revenge tale, premiering out of competition this time. Diaz is known for the length of his films varying from four to as long as 10 hours. Clocking in at 187 minutes, When the Waves Are Gone is one of his shorter efforts. Nevertheless, the film has everything you would expect from a Lav Diaz picture – shot in black-and-white, political statements formed, and character studies put forth.
If Norte, The End of History was based on Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and The Woman Who Left had Tolstoy’s God Sees the Truth but Waits as its inspiration, this latest film takes its cues from The Count of Monte Cristo. Two men are on different missions; there’s Lieutenant Hermes Papauran (John Lloyd Cruz), considered to be the best investigator in the country but currently on hiatus as he struggles with psoriasis, and there’s Sergeant Primo Macabantay (Ronnie Lazaro), just released after a decade of imprisonment, eager to take revenge on Hermes for locking him up.
One will notice that Diaz’s recent efforts are becoming more accessible. It’s not really a knock against the esteemed director; if anything, considering how topical his themes are (the film’s backdrop is set during former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody war on illegal drugs) it is a rather welcome change. The symbolism is in your face – Hermes’ skin disease is interpreted as the ailing disease of a country that is itching to heal. Meanwhile, Primo goes around painting and sees himself as a saviour, never realizing how his presence brings discomfort to those who encounter him.
The film takes its time in setting up these two characters separately before their eventual face-off in the film’s climax. The Hermes segment plays as some sort of invasive therapy session with him going back to his childhood home to reunite with his diabetic older sister, as he considers early retirement while slowly succumbing to his disease. Meanwhile, Primo’s segment is more audacious. We follow his journey back to his town in search of Hermes, baptizing strangers, booking prostitutes, and threatening people in the process.
While the film is successful in juxtaposing how 10 years can change the trajectory of two different people, there’s a striking scene in the film that shows both Hermes and Primo dancing endlessly to the beat of their own drums, showing that even the thinnest of threads can still link people together even in the most unexpected ways. While Hermes feels that his physical body is starting to decompose, years of jail time drove Primo’s soul to madness. For those following Lav Diaz’s films for the past decade or so, When the Waves Are Gone’s themes have already been tackled in his previous efforts, some even more extensively. But given the times we are living in now, particularly given the political climate in the Philippines, no matter how bleak, haunting, and hopeless they may be, these points are worth repeating over and over again.