BLITZ REVIEWJuaniyo Arcellana – The Philippine Star

October 17, 2021 | 12:00am

Lav Diaz’s latest film Ang Historiya ni Ha (The History of Ha) premiered at the BFI London Film Festival on Oct. 12, before which the director sent a link to Vimeo for an advance screener. He was currently in the boondocks location hunting as usual, with an eye forever out for a backdrop to stories of our beautiful but blighted land.

Ha’s history concerns a puppet named Ha and his ventriloquist master Hernando Aladama (John Lloyd Cruz) in the golden age of vaudeville, the year 1957 and President Ramon Magsaysay’s plane has gone missing in the mountains of Cebu, another accidental crossroads in history.

Hernando and Ha have just wrapped up their gig on the cruise ship Mayflower to much success, and the puppeteer is on his way back to his far-flung village of Tagsibol to marry his betrothed Rosetta, reunite with his twin sister Hernanda and her family, carrying with him varied pasalubong like shoes, books, Swiss knife.

Things don’t turn out as planned because of fate, economics, the powers that be and use of force and manipulation, so the heartbroken Hernando chooses to take to the road with his trusty carabao and cart to walk out his sorrow.

He meets assorted characters along the way, including a stowaway adolescent named Joselito, a young woman named Dahlia, and a nun Sister Lorenza, played by Mae Paner, who are all trying to get to Diwata Island, where there is presently a gold rush. The itinerants hire the services of Hernando to help carry their luggage in his carabao cart to Daang Tapak, another remote barrio more than a hundred steps away.

During stopovers and overnights, the puppeteer, who also happens to be a former Hukbalahap, occasionally dusts of Ha for a performance to entertain his companions in journey, although both puppet and Hernando repeatedly warn that the cure for their ills or whatever it is they are seeking can’t be found on Isla Diwata.

During one such impromptu vaudeville exercise, Ha differentiates between Historiya (history) and Storya (story), and how one is not necessarily the other.

Conflict ensues in Daang Tapak when the village supremo Kuyang Amo (Teroy Guzman) and his henchwoman sister Matilde (Hazel Orencio) impose an astronomical sum for transport to gold rush island, which the ventriloquist’s trio of travelers can’t afford.

Good thing Kuyang remembers Hernando and Ha’s gig on the Mayflower, where the village strongman had taken his ailing wife on a cruise on a last trip together. The puppeteer then volunteers a performance for the townfolk to help defray expenses for his friends’ passage to Diwata.

What follows can’t be related without dispensing some spoilers, except to say that the performance itself is replete with references to a local master forever beholden to his Chinese benefactors, full of political double entendre and subtle swipes. There, too, is the subplot of Joselito’s romance with a blind balut vendor, and the appearance of another itinerant enroute to Diwata by the name of Ernesto Guevarra, who also happens to have the goods on Kuyang, a.k.a. Hedonikos traitor to the Hukbalahap cause.

Historiya ni Ha as can be expected of the auteur director is rich in political discourse, and works on several levels such as: who the puppet and who the ventriloquist in this day and age of post vaudeville, and our sad republic slouching toward the end or what seems to be the end of a pandemic.

One might be bothered by henchmen and guards constantly pointing their guns at people seeking passage to Isla Diwata, as if stereotype military, then again this might be a statement that even in the most idyllic places, danger lurks like a shadow.

Ha’s history is one of Diaz’s more accessible works, along with Norte, The Woman who Left and Butterflies Have No Memories, and has the trademark ruminations and natural soundtrack of crickets, cicadas and rampaging rain, the canvas splashed with duotones as if in endless twilight.

It could even be a cautionary tale for our times, the inevitable crossroads, and how one can only compromise one’s art so much. Kudos to Cruz’s portrayal of the puppeteer, his give and take with Ha has ideas bouncing around in existential dialogue, the puppet’s name actually being the seventh letter of the Filipino alphabet.

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