Seemingly stepping away from the bluntly combative political screed and satire of his last few films, “Genus Pan” finds preeminent Filipino auteur Lav Diaz in a more broadly philosophical mood. National leaders may remain caught in his languidly focused crosshairs, but only because he’s zoomed out to target humankind as a whole: From its ape-referencing title downwards, Diaz’s latest announces itself unsubtly as an unhappy allegory for the base, animalistic nature of man.
That highly generalized subject would appear to promise an especially sprawling, expansive work from a director known for his endurance-testing runtimes. Yet “Genus Pan” turns out to be Diaz’s shortest narrative feature since 2011’s “Elegy to the Visitor from the Revolution,” clocking in at a relatively jaunty 157 minutes, and paring the bulk of its narrative down to a minimalist, albeit unhurried, three-hander — expanded directly from “Hugaw,” his contribution to the 2018 portmanteau film “Lakbayan.” Like that short, it tracks three working-class men on a heart-of-darkness trek into the wild, with grisly consequences that reflect none too well on them, and therefore us.
As it turns out, however, two and a half hours of Diaz is still a whole lotta Lav, as “Genus Pan” demands considerable investment from its audience in its simple but opaque storytelling and arresting, unvarnished form — toward a sour moral and emotional payoff that verges on outright nihilism. Distributors may demur; longtime admirers will find it yields gradual, austere rewards without ever quite gathering the stirring, sonorous dramatic heft of essential Diaz works like “Norte, the End of History” and “The Woman Who Left.” This is his first film to premiere at Venice since the latter, which scooped the Golden Lion in 2016; that “Genus Pan” was demoted to the lower-profile Horizons competition is indicative of its more limited appeal, though its humid rigor still impressed Claire Denis’s jury to the tune of a Best Director award.
Even on a brisker clock than usual, Diaz takes his time to establish his characters and their crises via their earthily evoked rural environment in a lengthy prologue, set to the pace of long, stiflingly hot working afternoons. Three laborers — middle-aged friends Baldo (Nanding Josef) and Paulo (Bart Guingona), plus their younger cohort Andres (D.M.S. Boongaling) — are reaching the end of a grueling, months-long stint in the gold mines, only to find their already meager wages further shaved down as their bosses demand brokerage and hospitality fees. With what cash they have left, the three head for their home island of Hugaw: Andres, in particular, has various family needs and ailments awaiting his modestly moneyed return.
To avoid island authorities demanding a further cut of their wages — Diaz’s swipes against the system here are practically integrated into the narrative — the men arrange to be dropped off the island’s furthest, least populated point, before making their way to their village through thick, hazardous jungle. Yet dangers simmer within the trio, not just around them: On the journey, tensions rise between the friends over perceived debts and thefts, while Baldo and Paulo confess to appalling crimes committed decades before. As the men’s companionship splinters and separates, so too does Diaz’s hitherto linear, prosaic storytelling, detouring around a crucial event in the wilderness, and only filling in various whats and whys at his considerable leisure.
These missing nuggets of detail keep the viewer uncomfortably compelled through the arduous proceedings, rather in the way it’s impossible to ignore a pebble in one’s shoe. Where many other Diaz films enter stages of numbed, overwhelmed trance, “Genus Pan” chafingly keeps us in its protagonists’ grasping, desperate mindset. No effort is made to render any man’s plight more sympathetic than the others’, either through Diaz’s sparse, closed-off characterization or the abrasively heightened performance style. Even the camera, wielded by the director himself in his usual severe monochrome, keeps them at a remove from us, obstinately resisting closeups throughout. Muddy sound design, for its part, sometimes swamps human exchanges in the stirrings of weather, foliage and screeching roosters.
If you struggle to see the humanity in all this, then Diaz has you exactly where he wants you: “Genus Pan” considers the virtues of empathy and emotion that are supposed to distinguish man from less enabled primates as little more than a theoretical cover for our most primal, feral, self-serving instincts. It’s not the richest or most nuanced hypothesis, least of all when Diaz supplements it with an overheard radio broadcast, in which a scientist holds forth on the minimal development of the human brain relative to its chimpanzee counterpart. Yet perhaps there’s a more targeted political subtext to these crude thematics after all: When heard as a tacit cry of frustration against the inhuman injustices of the Duterte administration, reflected back onto the exploits of its lowliest victims, the film gains in raw power what it lacks in the director’s usual poetry.