By Thomas Puhr.

It has non-diegetic music, a considerable amount of dialogue, some fairly complex camera movements, and even a few quick editing cuts. So why does my mind keep returning to that word: quiet?

The less you know about Dwein Ruedas Baltazar’s Ode to Nothing (2018) going into it, the better. So I’ll keep my plot revelations to a minimum and won’t discuss anything that happens beyond its first 20 minutes. It’s a quiet, meditative film, but not in the ways you’d expect. Calling it an example of “slow cinema,” for instance, feels wrong. Minus credits, it’s shorter than 90 minutes; it has non-diegetic music, a considerable amount of dialogue, some fairly complex camera movements, and even a few quick editing cuts. So why does my mind keep returning to that word: quiet? Perhaps it’s due to the film’s sometimes oppressive sense of loneliness and isolation. Or maybe it’s because one of the narrative’s three central characters is a dead body.

Marietta Subong plays Sonya, the proprietress of a family-owned funeral home on the edge of going under. She lives with her elderly father on the floor above the establishment, and in the film’s opening scenes the two aren’t on speaking terms. She operates the daily routines of the business; he shuffles around upstairs, like a ghost. In the evening, she listens to a tape recorder in bed with the lights on (she’s afraid of the dark, we learn; ironic, given her profession); his hand looms into the frame to flick the switch off (they need to save on the electricity bill). Sonya’s mother is conspicuously absent, though we see the father lighting candles for a shrine to her. We don’t sense a hatred between the father and daughter as much as a mutual ambivalence.

Some of these establishing scenes are peppered with humor. An early encounter in which Sonya haggles with a grieving woman over flower prices (“Maybe you can give this to us for free,” she suggests about the second arrangement. “We have two dead people. That’s good for your business.”) underlines the inherent absurdity behind turning death and grief into a form of commerce. Theodore (Dido de la Paz), a ruthless debt collector with an eye on taking the family’s land, recommends she start putting death curses on her neighbors in order to get a more steady flow of “customers.” First-time viewers may wonder if the film will veer into (very) dark comedy territory; will Sonya resort to murder to increase her clientele? 

Ode To Nothing [Kani] – Vinegar Syndrome

Baltazar, however, has something far stranger – and sadder – up her sleeve, and this comes in the form of an anonymous corpse which arrives at her doorstep one rainy night. Delivered by two shady men who strongly suggest Sonya not ask too many questions, the body is that of an elderly woman. Sonya cleans her up, paints her nails, and applies makeup to the battered face. Days pass, and no one comes to claim her. Sonya talks to the body: first out of what appears to be boredom, then in earnest. What begins as a monologue evolves into a conversation, and it quickly becomes clear to the viewer that the deceased is a means for the protagonist to “talk to” her dead mother. It’s an opportunity to properly grieve, to find a sense of closure she’s missed out on.

And then things start to get really bizarre.

Baltazar wisely lets the situation’s inherent absurdity speak for itself. That is, she doesn’t succumb to cheap laughs or over-the-top theatrics. She observes Sonya with sympathy; as a result, so do we. In this way, I was reminded – oddly enough – of Craig Gillespie’s 2007 tragicomedy Lars and the Real Girl (inanimate objects functioning as conduits toward self-understanding) and Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2011 Alps (surrogate family members allowing those left behind to come to terms with loss). The success of such stories hinges, of course, on whether or not we buy into the conceit. In this case, I mostly bought into it, though I can see many being turned off by Ode to Nothing’s increasingly extreme morbidity. But adventurous viewers may find themselves touched by what turns out to be an unusually tender – sometimes even sweet – story.

The film, Baltazar’s third, remains largely overlooked (as of yet, it has one user review on IMDb) despite having been released nearly five years ago. For its wider accessibility we have to thank Kani Releasing, “a new home video label dedicated to leveling the gaze and furthering the understanding of Asian cinema in North America.” Ode to Nothing is the company’s third release, following their restoration of Lino Brocka’s revenge thriller Cain and Abel (1982), and it is the first of their products to be directed by a woman. Here’s hoping there will be many more to come.

We don’t sense a hatred between the father and daughter as much as a mutual ambivalence.”

This particular release is a bit scant on bonus features (although the accompanying booklet stands out for featuring not just writing about the film, but also reflections by cinematographer Neil Daza and production designer Maolen Fadul), especially compared to those which accompanied Cain and Abel. However, a 20-minute interview with Baltazar sheds much light on what many may consider an opaque narrative. “It’s all about loneliness, it’s all about the desire of being seen,” she says of her troubled protagonist. “Invisibility, someone who is always stuck in one place.” Indeed, the entire film takes place in and around the funeral home, whose baroque interior (the look of which creates an atmosphere that dips into horror territory) is a feat of moody production design. It’s also in this interview that we learn Subong – who goes by the pseudonym Pokwang – is mostly known in the Philippines for her comedic work, which makes her sensitive, subdued performance here all the more remarkable.

Most interesting is the writer-director’s candid reflections on the film’s exigence. She has yet to experience the loss of a close loved one, we learn, and fears being alone. Ode to Nothing, she suggests, may be her subconscious attempt to preemptively grapple with grief, to repackage death and decay as a means toward new life. In this sense, perhaps she’s not much unlike Sonya. To be seen, acknowledged, and loved: Who doesn’t want that?

Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy BeastBirth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.

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