Lengthy running times have largely confined the films of Filipino director Lav Diaz to the festival circuit: His breakthrough “Evolution of a Filipino Family” was shot over 10 years and clocked in at over 10 hours, and subsequent features like “Melancholia” and “Norte, the End of History” followed suit. Diaz has been categorized as a practitioner of “slow cinema,” and this has made his work sound even more forbidding outside hardcore cinephile circles.
But “When the Waves Are Gone,” his current feature, is surprisingly approachable and engrossing, especially in its dynamic first third when we are introduced to our two protagonists: Hermes (John Lloyd Cruz), a cop and instructor at a police academy, and Primo (Ronnie Lazaro), a former cop who has just gotten out of jail after 10 years and is seeking vengeance against Hermes for helping to get him sentenced.
Hermes is known as a master investigator, and he has a quote from Agatha Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot on his classroom wall that reads, “One must seek the truth from within, not without,” but Diaz is more than happy to scrutinize the surface for clues to his characters. From the first shot of “When the Waves Are Gone,” it is apparent that Diaz himself is a master when it comes to composing his frames, many of which are made to look like the characters are being trapped inside a long hallway that extends out into the far distance on a diagonal, even in exterior shots.
Diaz and cinematographer Larry Manda shot this picture on 16mm black and white film, and they get extraordinary effects with light and with the shadows of moving trees. Diaz is averse to close-ups and stages nearly every scene in long shots that are sometimes rather extreme, as if he wants to keep the safest distance from his tortured characters.
The cop characters in “When the Waves Are Gone” are implicated in so-called “extra-judicial” killings of criminals and any people the regime of the moment doesn’t like, and so “solving cases” in the Philippines can never be as tidy as the cases that Christie’s Poirot ties up with a ribbon. The tone of this film is bleak, and there is rather youthful anger underlying this bleakness, yet the images themselves are a delight for the eye, a paradox that allows the movie to feel hopeful, as if there might be a light at the end of the tunnel of authoritarianism.
The most intense and impressive section of “When the Waves Are Gone” comes with the introduction of Lazaro’s Primo, who is seen baptizing a man in a boat. It becomes clear fairly soon that Primo is not quite right in the head after his stay in prison, and there is a very private-seeming scene where we watch him dance around a hotel room and fantasize that he is around other people. Primo cannot see others as anything more than figments of his imagination that he might baptize and save, and the baptisms he performs often start to look like a cop torturing a suspect.
Hermes develops the skin condition psoriasis and takes a leave of absence from his job to visit his older sister Nerissa (Shamaine Buencamino) on her farm, and it is at this point in “When the Waves Are Gone” that the level of Diaz’s writing is not up to the level of his visuals. Both Hermes and Nerissa tell us too much about what they think and feel, and Hermes sees his skin condition as symbolic of his corruption, and this is a view that the film seems to hold as well.
The conclusion of “When the Waves Are Gone” does not match the intensity of the first third, but there is a striking moment when Hermes begins to dance in the street in a way that looks just like what we have seen of Primo dancing in the street and in his hotel room, and this visual cue links both characters far better than all the dialogue in their last confrontation scene.
This Diaz movie goes on for three hours, and if he had cut some of the wordier scenes and it had lasted around two-and-a-half hours, it might have been a masterpiece. As it is, “When the Waves Are Gone” has enough memorable images to make it an imperfect but haunting experience.
“When the Waves Are Gone” makes its world premiere at the 2022 Venice Film Festival.