I guess I can’t say I was terribly thrilled with Brillante Mendoza’s acclaimed Tirador (Slingshot), the winner of the Best Director and Best Picture awards at the Gawad Urian and the Singapore Film Festival, the recipient of the Caligari award at the Berlin International Film Festival, and a Special Jury award at the Marrakech International Film Festival. A movie about the ordinary misfortunes of the residents of a Quiapo slum, Tirador is a well-executed, prolonged snort of rotting garbage.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this slice of Third World truthiness, and I hasten to add here that I’m not in that camp of Filipino naysayers, almost always located outside of the Philippines, who constantly lose sleep about the country’s image overseas. (See Mauro Tumbocon’s review, where he puts one of those complainers in their place very nicely.) But forgive me if I do detect a strong, redolent whiff of slum-porn, particularly in a sequence when Angela Ruiz (winner of the Gawad Urian award for Best Supporting Actress) loses her hard-earned dentures in a canal practically overflowing with shit. It’s grim comedy, and there are dollops of that black humor (and dollops of baby turds, come to think of it) in Tirador. But when Mendoza has the balls to zoom in for the money shot – Ruiz crying toothlessly while her baby-daddy scoops up a fistful of gray chunky sewage in vain – one has to wonder about the necessity of all this gratuitousness. (“There but for the grace of God,” the international critics mutter to themselves, and promptly check their ballot boxes.)
I did like Tirador‘s visual style, which zips with a frenzied, urban energy. The film begins with a police raid by flashlight, and Mendoza’s flailing, spinning digital camera excitingly captures this underworld and its inhabitants with brio: pickpockets, prostitutes, purse snatchers, hustlers, fences, copper wire thieves, scammers, shoplifters, junkies, DVD pirates, and so on, from one barong-barong to another, the assumption being that these are all otherwise ordinary people struggling to make ends meet. The quick cuts mirror the intertwined, chopped-up narratives; the overlapping dialogue is reminiscent of an Altman film run riot. (Folks were asking me and Barb to translate the inadequate subtitles, but it’s hard when everyone is talking at the same time.)
But despite Tirador’s blurring into cinema verite, it doesn’t stand still long enough for Mendoza’s minute anthropological observations to sink in – something his more patient, quietly moving film Foster Child (2007) was able to accomplish gracefully. (Forgive the snarkiness in the second paragraph, by the way, but I couldn’t help but think that Foster Child was docked a few points by critics because a) it features an obviously cute kid, and b) it dares to conclude with a tearjerker of an ending, but it’s a more compassionate and humanist film, very different from Mendoza’s dispassionate eye on the miscreants of Tirador.)
The events in Tirador unspool during Holy Week, between Palm Sunday and Easter. It’s also the eve of citywide elections in Manila, and so vote-buying is in earnest; election campaign posters show up in almost every other frame – in alleys, on jeepneys, on tricycle sidecars, in living rooms. (I was thinking that the appearance of political posters in people’s houses had the same aesthetic function as the half-naked calendar pinups, but someone wisely observed at last night’s viewing – it was either Oscar or Frank – that they were probably used to cover up holes in the walls instead.) This election milieu is employed by Mendoza – aided by a Brocka-sized sledgehammer – to drive the point home that politicians, policemen, and priests are just as “immoral” as our mischievous protagonists, and he does it again and again. We got it the first time, honestly. Tirador may provide an antidote from the burnished poverty of, for instance, Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, but rubbing the audience’s noses in it isn’t particularly welcome either.
[For another take, see Francis Cruz's review in Lessons from the School of Inattention.]