"Lithium we know as a medication but one can misread it as a mediation and still nail it. The way it stabilizes frenzies that violently push and pull from both sides of the pole is a form of mediation, a truce of chaoses." (Notes on Lithium, Dodo Dayao)

He built a little village from the ground up, on a bluff in Zambales, then later burned it down, with gasoline and a makeshift torch. This was my first glimpse of Dante Perez’s prowess as a production designer. A potent image, for sure, but I’m resisting the urge to milk it for poetic effect as I don’t want to cloud this with anything less than forthright. Nor lay anything on too thick. One thing you probably won’t hear much mention of, in the flurry of well-wishing and reminisces, is how funny Dante Perez (Ka Dante to us) can be. And if this gets a little too maudlin, he’d probably crack a joke or two just to lighten the mood.

What this is exactly I’m not sure, though. A eulogy to a dead star. A valentine to a friend. A celebration of an artist. All of these, perhaps. But more than that, a way to make sense of someone leaving too soon. I realize it’s arrogant to assume one is privy to the caprices of the cosmos when it comes to comings and goings. I realize, too, that everybody ultimately gets a lifetime. And Ka Dante had one that was packed to the gills.

The tiny inferno in Zambales was also my first glimpse of the synergy he shared with Lav Diaz. Ka Dante was Lav’s collaborator and production designer and eventually actor, from Heremias up to Florentina Hubaldo CTE. It is, without argument, one of the most vital and robust collaborations in domestic independent cinema, of world cinema even. And yet it remained a largely unsung one. Which is how Ka Dante would have wanted it, I suppose. He was never a man drawn to the blare of the spotlight. He was always about the work. And he worked incessantly. He got restless when he wasn’t working. He drew comics, including an unfinished, wordless one about a Japanese straggler that he was going to show to me. He acted for other filmmakers, including Khavn De La Cruz in Mondomanila and Rico Ilarde in Pridyider. He made his own films, and his unflinching and often poignant feature-length documentary on Soliman Cruz, The Actor, has a raw, almost uncomfortable, honesty that makes its obscurity almost criminal. Before all this, of course, he painted. And had anyone known he wasn’t going to have another one-man show, the melancholia that permeated through his last, Lithium, would have seemed less residual and more prescient. The way Ka Dante explained it to me was that the new work was his means of grasping at transcendence. And much as the stark monochrome felt at first leeched of his usual color, his usual vibrancy, you do feel, in its place, a soothing sense of grace.

A couple of weeks before the opening of Lithium, Ka Dante and I were having a few beers at a Cubao X that seemed to be leeched of its vibrancy and color as well. It was a vibrancy and color we were familiar with and we missed. Six years ago, give or take, this was where our every night led us, talking about art and love and hope, all of us who were part of that ragtag community of like-minded friends who made films and wrote about films and worked on films and dreamed of films, and the future of the cinema we loved and the future of our lives as well was still fulsome, incandescent. That night, we talked instead about other things, about cycles running its course, about the parsimony of fate, about the infinite relief of art. But we talked about it in an oddly hopeful way, knowing full well we could easily rebuild that little village from the ashes anyway. And before he left us, Ka Dante, in many ways, did. “Sparkle”, apparently, was the last word he uttered. He was referring to the soft drink. But I prefer to think of it instead as an exhortation to all of us he left behind. Thank you and shine on yourself, Ka Dante. Shine on and live forever.

 *Lyric by Leonard Cohen
**This article originally appeared in the June 2, 2013 edition of PhilStar Sunday Lifestyle

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