Oda sa wala (English title: Ode to Nothing). 2019. Directed & Written by Dwein Baltazar.
Starring Pokwang (a.k.a Marietta Subong), Joonee Gamboa, Dido de la Paz, & Anthony Falcon.
Black Sheep / Epic Media
Not Rated. 92 minutes.
Ode to Nothing deals with strange behaviour surrounding a corpse. Despite there not being any sexual contact with a dead body, Dwein Baltazar’s film feels like a spiritual cousin to author Barbara Gowdy’s short story “We So Seldom Look on Love” (later adapted for the screen as Kissed starring Molly Parker). It doesn’t stray into necrophilia, portraying something beautiful, albeit weird in the connection a living woman makes with a dead one.
The film revolves around Sonya (Filipino actress Pokwang). She’s a lonely woman in her early 40s left taking care of the family funeral business, battling debt as much as she battles a creeping alienation from the world around her. She’s barely noticed by anybody: not her own father, not the local taho peddler, and not some of the people who come to have their family members buried. When the body of an old woman shows up with nobody to claim her, Sonya forms a bond with the corpse that goes beyond friendship, altering her life in unimaginable ways.
Baltazar uses absurdism to look at how the living can be alienated enough to feel dead, and also how death can either unite us with those still living or tear us apart. Sonya’s struggle with the lonely void in her life is book-ended by the lost connection she has with her dead mother and living father. The arrival of the old woman’s corpse is a way for her to confront the ramifications of desperate loneliness, the death of her mother, as well as the gaping divide separating her and her father.
“Everybody leaves me, anyway.”
Sonya’s alienation and isolation from the rest of society is initially seen in the capitalist nihilism of her job. She’s drowning in debt yet has people haggling with her over the prices of caskets and flowers— one minute weeping over their dead loved one, the next trying to get a discount or freebies. Nobody cares for her in general, whether on a business level— including the angry loan shark to whom she’s in debt— or a personal one. People barely acknowledge Sonya exists: not the bus driver, the taho peddler (until he has a wound needing attention), the funeral parlour customers, or her father. At home, Sonya exists in a cage-like environment. The windows have security bars on the outside, as if to keep her inside. Not unlike a coffin.
Upon the arrival of the old lady, Sonya sees her alienated existence mirrored in the corpse. Nobody’s there to claim the woman as family, paralleling the way Sonya feels about life and how nobody cares about her. She’s like a breathing, talking, walking corpse herself. When she tries to offer sex as a way to lessen her debt the loan shark callously yells: “I‘d rather fuck a dead body than have sex with you.”
When the body shows up Sonya suddenly has a quiet companion, isolated like her, to whom she can tell her problems. She has more trouble talking to the taho peddler, Elmer, a living person, than she does the old woman’s corpse. She’s so alienated from the living in a world of the dead that when she tries to reach out to another person she finds it futile. Worse, after Elmer makes a genuine connection her with, he dies tragically and winds up on her embalming table. Even after Sonya connects with someone they’re taken from her— something that started before the film’s events.
to be all alone”
Sonya has resigned herself to a life of being left behind. It all starts with the death of her mother, occurring at some point before the film begins. She isn’t only isolated from a social life, she’s isolated from those closest to her. At the start of the film there’s a lingering silence that goes on for minutes. We see Sonya and her father’s daily ritual. Before the corpse, the father and daughter traipse around the house like two ghosts, barely coming into contact with one another apart from taking food from the same bowls at the dinner table to go eat in separate rooms. There are several shots where Sonya and her father are depicted as divided by the frame itself. For instance, in one shot Sonya sits in the foreground in one room while her father is in the background in another, both appearing within the same frame but fractured. After the corpse, they start eating together at the table like a family again. This absurd situation leads to further complications. It also leads Sonya to a sense of closure.
Baltazar uses absurdism to close a gaping wound in Sonya’s life. She and her father reconnect after the old woman’s corpse takes a place in their house, standing in figuratively for the dead mother. The painful hole in their lives left by the mother is visualised, and simultaneously they reconstruct the family they had once. It’s not their real family, so, after an actual family comes to try claiming the body, it all collapses. The corpse literally comes apart when Sonya knocks the head off. This parallels the family falling apart again, the mother clearly acting as the glue that used to hold it all together.
It isn’t entirely destroyed— Sonya and her father go back to how it was before the corpse, sitting silent at the dinner table. They still sit together now rather than heading off to different rooms to eat. This small constant of togetherness suggests not all hope is lost. It suggests that, maybe, the corpse as a surrogate for the dead mother / wife allowed Sonya and her father a second chance to properly grieve and lay her to rest.
A strange image closes the film after Sonya and her father get into their hearse. She follows the old woman’s body through the woods in a surreal vision. She stops and the woman stands behind her at a short distance. Just as Sonya turns to look back the credits start to roll. There are plenty of ways to interpret the finale. Father Gore chooses to see it as a metaphor of how our memories of the dead must be symbolically preserved, not unlike the literal preservation of corpses.
Sonya learns it isn’t necessary that her mother physically be there for them to remain together. Memories connect us to events and people long after they’re over / gone. Just because a person dies it doesn’t mean they aren’t with us. There’s no heaven, or hell, only our memories and how we choose to preserve them. The old woman’s ghostly figure behind Sonya is not one meant to frighten— it’s meant to inspire the hope that not all is lost by the physical disappearing from our lives, no matter how painful it is initially when it disappears.
Baltazar closes the film with the Chinese folk song “Mo Li Hua” commonly known in English as “Jasmine Flower,” dating back to the 18th century. In the Philippines, a type of Jasmine flower known as sampaguita is the National Flower. The flower acts as a striking image on several levels in the context of Ode to Nothing‘s finale. First, on a surface level, Filipinos adorn photographs of the dead with sampaguita. Secondly, and more important, the flower symbolises, among other things, divine hope— here, it becomes Sonya’s hope that the memory of her mother isn’t lost, represented by the old woman’s ghost-like body reanimating in the woods.
On top of that, sampaquita flowers are often included in floral bouquets given to mothers(/grandmothers) to express love and dedication. In this light, Sonya’s last revelatory moments, set to “Jasmine Flower,” affirm the love she has for her mother, and represent a newfound dedication she has to preserving her mother’s memory in a healthy way rather than the destructive paths she’s taken.
No one reading of any film is correct. Art is subjective. Stories about people dying, regardless of their focus, are especially subjective because each and every one of us has a different, complex, and deeply personal connection to death. In the digital 21st century, alienation and isolation are concepts more people than ever seem to understand. Sonya may be living in a small town in the Philippines, but her difficulties connecting with the living while incapable of letting go of the dead is a theme that will resonate emotionally with anybody, anywhere. Baltazar’s film manages to feel specific to Filipino culture in many ways while remaining universal to the overall human struggle of balancing the concepts of life and death. One of the best films this year at Fantasia Festival, and a cinematic work of art that moved Father Gore in ways few films ever do.