“Essential Truths of the Lake” is the last thing most people would expect from Lav Diaz: a direct follow-up to his previous film, “When the Waves Are Gone.” It’s not a sequel, per se (this one actually comes earlier), but they are connected, with a third movie featuring the same disillusioned police detective in the works.
The Filipino filmmaker, whose pokey social critiques run anywhere from three to 11 hours, established the character of Lt. Hermes Papauran (John Lloyd Cruz) in “Waves.” Described there as “arguably the greatest Filipino investigator ever,” he’s Diaz’s version of “The Singing Detective”: a tortured enforcer afflicted with a skin condition that reflects on the surface the conflict and cynicism roiling within him. He’s a good cop in a corrupt country, furious with how Rodrigo Duterte mishandled the war on drugs.
It’s a basic rule of dramaturgy that it’s not enough just to say that someone’s good at his job; you have to show it. But Diaz doesn’t subscribe to anything resembling conventional storytelling rules, having found a receptive audience on the festival circuit for his endurance-test style. As political thrillers go, “Essential Truths of the Lake” is fairly conventional, plotwise. Hermes convinces his boss, the colonel (Agot Isidro), an ex-classmate from the police academy, to reopen a cold case from 2005 involving the disappearance of Esmeralda Stuart, “the Philippine Eagle,” an activist-artist who protested in a headdress and feathers.
It’s been 15 years, but her death still haunts Hermes. The film follows the detective as he looks for fresh leads, failing to show what makes him the “greatest” — unless what really matters isn’t solving cases but refusing to abandon them. The presentation is distinctly Diaz’s, as languorous black-and-white scenes play out in real time, the fixed (in this case, digital) camera observing the characters from roughly the same distance you’d get sitting in the back row of a live theater.
Diaz defenders seem to appreciate the challenge, bragging about how much they get from movies that avoid all the usual directorial interference. (Though inspired by Hollywood action movies, Diaz largely avoids the framing, editing and musical choices American directors use to telegraph how they want audiences to feel.) With 20 features under his belt, Diaz obviously directs like this by choice, although there’s no question that the same techniques — the clunky dialogue, the stilted line readings, the grubby production values — would be deemed amateurish in an English-language movie.
Audiences must take Diaz on his terms, focusing on what the director is trying to say. On one level, it’s not hard: Deeply upset by Duterte’s legacy, Diaz puts his indignation directly in his characters’ mouths. He named names in “Waves,” and now there’s a furious dissident edge to certain elements (like the distraught woman in the opening scene who claims someone falsely accused her husband, found dead in a park, of being a dealer so they could kill him with impunity). “We follow ideas. We don’t follow the laws,” the colonel tells Hermes. Later, a woman opines, “With the thousands of victims of Duterte’s drug wars … it will take years to recover.”
But there remains a frustrating clumsiness to the storytelling. Certain unclear details (like what happens to the older woman at the end) could charitably be described as “ambiguous,” except the confusion doesn’t seem to be deliberate. Or helpful. For the first two hours, audiences get Diaz’s singular take on a detective story, suspecting that there can be no satisfying resolution to such a case — or countless others in real life. Hermes revisits the No. 1 suspect, Jack Barquero (Bart Guingona), and they sit for a long conversation that could, if Diaz had shot and cut it differently, crackled with tension. His snooping includes some illuminating digressions, as when he interviews documentary filmmaker Jane Liway (Hazel Orencio), who screens a movie she made starring Esmeralda for the local women, using the opportunity to discuss domestic violence and other issues. Here, Diaz acknowledges the role of filmmaking in social progress.
Still, while his own work overtly calls for political change, Diaz stubbornly resists operating in a more populist vein. Critics joked that at three hours, “When the Waves Are Gone” was essentially a short film by the director’s usual standards, and at 214 minutes, “Essential Truths of the Lake” isn’t much longer — but don’t believe those who claim the time just flies by. It’s a slog, although it does kick in around the 110-minute mark, after Hermes takes Esmeralda’s Philippine Eagle costume and puts it on. Suddenly, it feels like Diaz is doing his version of a superhero movie: Hermes acquires no special powers, but as with Batman, the transformation could help him track down the bad guys. Or not.
Hermes seems to lose his mind during this stretch, becoming either Esmeralda (the victim) or the endangered bird she was advocating for. The colonel finds him sleeping outdoors and orders Hermes to abandon the case. Then a volcano erupts (this actually happened during the shooting of “Waves,” resulting in a whole bunch of 16mm footage that didn’t fit that film, now wedged into this one). Since Diaz doesn’t do close-ups, it takes a while to realize that the long-haired photographer wandering around the ash-covered countryside is Hermes. He refuses to abandon the search, showing missing-persons flyers to the locals and listening to their conflicting stories.
Handled differently, the film might have gotten under our skin — another obsessive unsolved-mystery movie, à la “Memories of Murder” or “Zodiac.” The trouble is, Hermes cares about his case, but we don’t. He’s a frustrating character, and yet, the fact he appears in more than one movie reveals something important about Lav Diaz’s “extended universe”: The director is exasperated by the political state of affairs in the Philippines, but he hasn’t lost faith in the system. Some cops are corrupt, as many leaders have been, but Hermes is a diligent and dedicated counterexample. Though he teeters on the brink of insanity at times, the country needs idealists — like Hermes, like Diaz — if it ever hopes to recover.