Loneliness is a feeling to latch onto. Driving in some endless space, waiting for something to hold when trying not to let go of the world. Maybe that’s a story to connect with, or often one person. In Ode to Nothing‘s case, that person isn’t even alive. Director Dwein Baltazar crafts one of the finest films to come out of the Philippines in recent years, as well as one of the best films worldwide from last year. It is an ode to finding comfort in loneliness, and to the lasting feeling of human connection even after life.
The tale follows Sonya (Marietta Subong), a mortician at a small funeral home. She and her father live together, yet he takes little interest in their family business. When she isn’t listening to a Chinese folk song, Mo Li Hua on her Walkman, she spends her hours trying to resell funeral flowers in order to escape poverty. The customers are all the same at the start, most brought by their loudly grieving loved ones, but a few arrive alone. Early on, a middle aged woman brings both parents in and requests a discount on the flowers: “We have two dead people, that’s good for business.” Sonya is just like these bodies at the start; no one noticed her but for profit, and she is silent to the world so much of the time.
Then she meets the corpse that will change her life. No, not a romance in the vein of Swiss Army Man, while the logistics are similar, but one of family and confession. Two men leave the body of an old woman on her doorstep, asking her to take it in secret as they ran her over and the police will be after them any minute. She embalms the body and waits, maybe for the woman’s family, or maybe for the body to react. And it does. Rigor mortis causes the body to reach out and hit her when the muscles stiffen, more of an interaction with anyone than she’s had in years. This body becomes more of a friend, a relative, someone close to confess to and a child to pamper. The body is tied to a wood plank with scarves, a new, stiffer life to bring the whole situation to eye-level.
Now, life is filled with color. With death comes life, and Sonya’s new friend proves to be a good luck charm. The funeral business is now booming, she and her father are opening up to each other again, and it’s all good for now, right? Well, when things fall apart again, blame falls upon the cadaver. Her father blames the old woman for all of their problems, and the landlord notices the smell that the family of three has grown so used to. Sonya’s father accuses her and the body of fighting, even he had begun to breath life into her. Even without motion, the body is very much alive. Must one respond in order to care? Even the way the film is shot feels deeply lonely, framing a world through windows and doors to suggest a sense of strict architecture of how we must live.
The body may act as a reason to live, to push on. Maybe it is meant to replace our protagonist’s dead mother, or maybe the dead simply cannot be replaced. We makeup stories for those we do not know, we speak into empty rooms hardly expecting a response. Loneliness is a powerful thing, it keeps us alone when thrust into a crowd of life, yet keeps us together after death. Maybe Ode to Nothing is best exemplified by its opening shot, of flies buzzing around a florescent light-bulb, as Mo Li Hua plays. It is the musicality of death drawn to life, as flies are so often associated with rot and decay. It is an inverse of the film, yet it compliments the theme, a reminder that we are not alone in either life or death.
Ode to Nothing is currently seeking international distribution.