Release Date(s)2018 (April 26, 2021)
Studio(s)Kani Releasing/Vinegar Syndrome
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: C+
Ode to Nothing (aka Oda sa Wala) was the second theatrical feature from Filipino filmmaker Dwein Ruedas Baltazar, who wrote, directed, and edited the film. Like all of Baltazar’s first few projects, it explores the universal themes of loneliness and isolation, but in a style that effectively serves as an unconventional horror story—unconventional, because in this case, the monster is loneliness itself.
Sonya (Marietta Subong, aka Pokwang) is a mortician who runs a funeral home where she lives practically alone, accompanied only by a father (Joonee Gamboa) with whom she has little personal contact anymore. She struggles to keep her business afloat, with creditors nipping at her heels, but she struggles more with an overwhelming sense of loneliness. She pines for the local taho vendor (Anthony Falcon), but finds herself unable to connect with him. When she’s forced to take possession of the unclaimed body of an old woman, Sonya ends up forming a relationship with the corpse instead.
Baltazar has an uncanny knack for expressing her themes visually, and Ode to Nothing is no exception. The camera sits back from the action and observes everything in unbroken tableaus, somewhat reminiscent of the staging in early Jim Jarmusch films. When there’s a cut, or a camera movement, or a close-up, it’s for a reason. Generally, Sonya is always carefully confined within the frame, viewed through doorways, windows, mirrors, and even seen through bars as if she’s been imprisoned. The frame itself is 1.33:1, with rounded edges, which was a conscious choice to mimic the appearance of looking through the window on a coffin. Sonya isn’t merely isolated from the world around her; she’s isolated from the viewer as well.
The old woman’s body also acts as a visual barometer of Sonya’s mental state. As the corpse decays, Sonya’s mind deteriorates accordingly. Interestingly enough, the whole situation becomes a point of connection between Sonya and her father. Yet even that isn’t enough, and as the film progresses, Sonya is unable to bond with anyone other than the personality that she has imagined. In the end, it’s all that she has. Ode to Nothing is a singular experience that won’t be for all tastes, but it’s a remarkable portrait of a lonely woman yearning for something that she can’t have in reality.
Cinematographer Neil Daza captured Ode to Nothing digitally, but there’s no information available regarding the cameras used or the resolutions, just the fact that 99% of the film was shot using a 25 mm Zeiss Super Speed lens. Kani’s Releasing’s Blu-ray is framed accurately at 1.33:1. While Ode to Nothing has a distinctive desaturated look, that wasn’t achieved during grading, but was instead captured live on set thanks to careful costuming and production design. The biggest grading choice was to add a sheen of grain during post-production, most likely to replicate the appearance of 16 mm film. Within the confines of the look that was intended by Baltazar and Daza, this is a beautiful transfer. It’s sharp and detailed despite the added grain, and while the contrast range does seem limited at times, that’s a natural consequence of the way that the film was designed and shot.
Audio is offered in Tagalog 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English and English SDH subtitles. Much of the mix for Ode to Nothing is based on production audio, and so it’s generally focused on the front channels, and everything is appropriately subdued. It appears to be encoded for surround sound, as effects likes rain decode to the rears, which provides limited ambience. Otherwise, everything is as clean, clear, and precise as all other aspects of the film. That includes the music that was supervised by Richard Gonzales, which is restrained but effective.
Kani Releasing is a relatively new label dedicated to advancing distribution of new and classic Asian cinema in North America. It’s a subsidiary of OCN Distribution, which is a sister company to Vinegar Syndrome. Their Blu-ray release of Ode to Nothing is packaged in a clear amaray case that displays a still from the film on the reverse side of the insert, which is visible when the case is opened. It also includes a 24-page booklet featuring notes from Neil Daza and production designer Maolen Fadul, as well as an essay by Elmo Gonzaga. There’s also a spot gloss slipcover available directly from Vinegar Syndrome, limited to the first 1,500 units, that features new artwork designed by Constantino Zicarelli. The following extras are included, both in HD:
- Theatrical Trailer (1:26)
- Interview with Dwein Baltazar (19:18)
The interview with Baltazar was conducted via Zoom, so it’s not the best video quality, but she more than makes up for that with her thoughtfulness. She describes her path to becoming a filmmaker, as well as the background for the development of the script for Ode to Nothing, which started in a workshop under the mentorship of legendary Filipino writer Ricky Lee (Cain and Abel). She explains the unusual framing in the film as a way of showing how Sonya is caged in her own environment, and examines her recurrent themes of loneliness and isolation. She says that she’s a loud person who makes quiet films, as a way of addressing her own deepest fears—Sonya in Ode to Nothing is a character who wants to give love but instead feels grief, and that kind of loneliness terrifies Baltazar. She also covers the process of shooting and designing the film.
Kani Releasing has been knocking it out of the park with the films that they’re bringing to North American audiences, and Ode to Nothing is no exception. While a few more extras would have been nice, the interview with Baltazar is first-rate, and besides, Ode to Nothing is the type of film that’s best experienced, rather than explained. Baltazar is a talent to watch, and hopefully Kani can bring more of her films to these shores.
- Stephen Bjork