The Halt (2019) Review – Minimalist Sci-Fi Meets Dark Dystopian Fantasy

The year is 2034 and the Philippines is completely shrouded by darkness. This isn’t any new unfamiliar malady for the country ― metaphorically speaking ― having been subject to nearly 400 years of colonial exploitation, only to be followed by tyrannical regimes of dictators like Ferdinand Marcos ravaging the people almost as much as the numerous typhoons that batter their lands every year. But in Ang Hupa (The Halt), the latest film by Filipino master Lav Diaz, the nation’s skies are literally devoid of sunlight, due to massive volcanic eruptions resulting in the atmosphere staying perpetually cloaked by an impenetrable blanket of ash and smog.

In this post-apocalyptic future, Diaz trains his lenses on a people struggling to survive the rule of a rabid President, while coming to terms with their own past traumas buried under the rubble of their collective fractured memories, in a film that proves to be the director’s bleakest (even if not the most devastating) cinematic vision till date. The Halt begins with a title card informing us of the environmental catastrophe that forms the film’s aesthetic, spiritual and political backbone. We later learn that the country has also been afflicted by the outbreak of a deadly plague that they’ve christened ‘Dark Killer’, which has resulted in the death of millions of Filipinos, leaving the streets filled with poor helpless orphans. Strict quarantine measures are being taken by the government, with the President’s military team of Special Forces herding people like cattle to get mandatory flu shots. There seem to be no birds in the skies, except for the military drones flying around everywhere and keeping an eye on the people, lest they stir up trouble.

The Halt
Shaina Magdayao in The Halt (Image Courtesy: Indie Sales)

All citizens are required to flash their ID cards whenever commanded, whether it be to uniformed soldiers or buzzing drones. President Navarro (Joel Lamangan) is extremely paranoid about pocket rebellions and uprisings that threaten to topple the autocratic government and thus plants his eyes and ears everywhere for any sniff of the activists’ whereabouts. He even severely restricts the supply of food to areas where he suspects the rebels to be hiding, at a time when the availability of fundamental resources is already scarce and the prices are skyrocketing. The President’s two closest aides Colonel Martha (Hazel Orencio) and Lieutenant Marissa (Mara Lopez), apart from being passionate lovers, are the ruthless leaders of the Special Forces that perpetually subjugate the masses. While the unscrupulous Martha is absolutely dedicated to her President’s cause, Marissa suffers from internal conflicts and doubts which seem to manifest as torturous physical convulsions.

In typical Lav Diaz fashion, The Halt effectively uses its mammoth runtime (which is still on the shorter side considering his older films) to run along tangential character arcs that only converge much later. There’s the rockstar-turned-rebel Hook (Piolo Pascual), going by the alias Ramirez to protect his identity, whose attempts to assassinate the President lead him on to a curious journey of ideological rediscovery. History professor Haminilda Rios (an excellent Shaina Magdayao) moonlights as a high-class prostitute while embarking on a mission to recover her damaged memories. She undergoes psychiatric treatment from Dr. Jean Hadoro (Pinky Amador), author of a book titled ‘The Nation Without Memory’, who seems to voice a key concern that keeps recurring throughout Diaz’s filmography: the Filipino people forgetting their own dark past in an era of historical revisionism (which Diaz had previously addressed more directly in Norte, The End of History), and thus failing to recognize repeating dire patterns while electing corrupt leaders into power.

 

It is interesting to note that Diaz hasn’t rendered the President as some one-dimensional tower of evil, as was the case with the antagonists in his previous film, but rather as a childish madman fixated with the belief that he is God’s chosen one to rescue the Filipino people. He hears voices and genuinely believes that he is selflessly serving his nation, while his followers blindly serve his every whim even though they are aware of his mental instability. Their actions arouse a strange bloodlust among sections of the people, which Diaz depicts with some seriously-dark humor by showing a group ritualistically gathering to, literally, drink fresh blood. As the people sit inside a butcher’s shop ― holding wine glasses as if at a party ― the owner arrives with a yell of “More fresh blood!”, which is met by gleeful screams as if he’d just opened a bottle of the finest vintage.

The recent trend in Diaz’s work to streamline his narrative structure and make it more ‘accessible’ still hasn’t abated, unfortunately, as the dialogue continues to conspicuously highlight key concerns, parallels and allegories within the drama, which would typically remain cloaked in mystery or abstraction in his older films. While important plot points would previously be buried deep within long stretches of mundane everyday conversation ― a strikingly effective technique of immersion ― the new Diaz tends to cut to key portions more often than not, while skipping past the tedium of casual verbal exchanges. This might be a source of relief to a lot of people who balk at the mention of a Lav Diaz film, but also a bit of a disappointment for his older fanbase. Nevertheless, the bold confidence with which he keeps treading new grounds ― first a musical and now a minimalist sci-fi feature ― while transposing and adapting his classic long-take slow cinema aesthetic is definitely very admirable.

The Halt
The Halt (Image Courtesy: Indie Sales)

Diaz’s newfound roster of professional actors is gradually morphing into a family of the kind of stripped-down onscreen personas that best suit his films, while veterans like Hazel Orencio are outdoing themselves by sinking into roles that are in stark contrast to the kind of characters they’d inhabit in previous Diaz projects. The Halt is ultimately a startling achievement of exploring familiar issues through unfamiliar methods, presenting a vicious glimpse of a doomsday scenario precipitated by corrupt and evil national leaders. The military oppression, pocket rebellions, and an unhinged power-hungry President clearly bring to mind one particularly dreadful period in history when Marcos imposed martial law all over the Philippines.

And anyone even briefly familiar with Diaz’s storytelling techniques would recognize the premise for what it is i.e. a mirror to the dark times to come under the rule of modern-day autocrats like Duterte and Trump, disguised as an environmental disaster. Perhaps it isn’t a coincidence then, that following a significant plot development the sky appears to be lightening at the very end of the film.

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