“I don’t think I can hold on much longer,” groans a soldier in “Death March,” and his sentiment is likely to be echoed by the small audience for Adolfo Borinaga Alix Jr.’s gruelingly abstract and attenuated war meditation. Deploying a curious mix of artificial scenery, extended slow-motion and black-and-white cinematography, the director seeks to suspend viewers in the surreal, barbaric experience of the Bataan Death March, which claimed the lives of thousands of POWs being forcibly transferred by the Japanese army in 1942. That it’s monotonous and excruciating by design isn’t enough to recommend this drawn-out tribute/art piece, whose walkout-heavy Cannes premiere doesn’t bode well for its prospects beyond festivals.
In making use of elements at once distancing and hyper-immersive, Alix means to fashion a uniquely cinematic memorial to the staggering loss of life during one of WWII’s gravest atrocities. On April 9, 1942, after the end of the three-month Battle of Bataan in the Philippines, Japanese officials forced some 60,000 Filipino soldiers and 15,000 American soldiers on a 65-mile trek to Camp O’Donnell (a closing title here states that at least 20,000 men died along the way, and many thousands more perished upon reaching their destination). Yet the logistical specifics are merely contextual in a film that prizes psychological inquiry over physical verisimilitude.
The march occupies the entirety of the film’s 112-minute runtime, during which it focuses on the perspectives of several Filipino soldiers, a wounded American captain and one rare, sympathetic Japanese officer (played by exec producer Jacky Woo). Lensed by d.p. Albert Banzon on a widescreen monochrome palette, “Death March” feels, from the outset, like a barrage of disorienting representational choices: stilted, slightly exaggerated performances; liberal use of slo-mo; a lugubrious score almost drowned out by a nonstop background track of moaning; and matte-style studio sets, all the more incongruous for looking as if they’ve been borrowed from an old-school Disney fairy tale.
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The point of this quasi-Brechtian alienation effect would seem to be showing not just the absurdity of war, but the way in which the soldiers gradually lose all sense of their environment, and eventually their will to live, as those who manage to avoid being shot or bayoneted eventually succumb to thirst, starvation, disease and fatigue. Sanity recedes and the march just goes on and on, with no end in sight and no sense of progress, toward a destination that may well be worse than the journey. But if the intent is to induce a state of hallucinatory shellshock, encouraging the viewer toward prolonged contemplation and/or vicarious agony, the effect is rather different, largely due to the over-literal touches in Rody Vera’s script.
A Filipino soldier, Miguel (Sid Lucero), finds that the troops talking to him are already deceased, ponderously underscoring that the living are as good as dead anyway. More than one soldier is forced to defecate in his uniform (cue flatulent sound effects), causing another to solemnly remark, “The smell is so much better than the smell of death.” And in the kitschiest sequence, an angel descends upon the soldiers, again in slo-mo, under a blinding white halo. Is she an angel of death, a vision of hope, or both?
Banzon’s black-and-white imagery does occasionally mesmerize, and the actors show an impressive intensity of commitment. But by the time it grinds its way to an inevitably bleak conclusion, “Death March” has long since exhausted its ideas and the expressive potential of its daring but ineffectual stylistic devices.