At some point in Brillante Mendoza’s controversial film Kinatay, there’s a brief and unexpected shot of something one rarely sees in the usual squalor of a Mendoza film: a postcard-pretty image of a Manila Bay sunset, complete with palm tree and silhouetted spectators. It’s surprising, and almost out of place – but it is, after all, a movie set in the Philippines, and surely it wouldn’t be complete without that sunset?
Kinatay is, at its narrative core, about the abduction, beating, rape, murder and eventual dismemberment of a prostitute. That sort of synopsis should be enough to keep sensitive audiences away, but on the contrary, Kinatay isn’t unremittingly dark.* In fact, the film can’t be fully appreciated without taking into account the seemingly irrelevant extended prologue (weddings, a dinner, a young couple that actually seems happy); indeed, the unforced cheer of the first third is, in hindsight, almost unreal in comparison to the sickening events that follow it.
We follow Peping (played by Coco Martin, a Mendoza regular), a cop still in training, as he and his girlfriend (the impossibly beautiful Mercedes Cabral, who as I’ve written before probably holds some sort of Cannes record for a Pinay actress) drop their baby off at a relative’s before they get married at City Hall. (The camera follows them, in a brief, almost blissful scene, taking a rickety jeepney ride; it’s the analogue to another fateful journey later in the film.) Throughout the first half hour we learn of their modest aspirations to approximate something close to middle-classness and a comfortable life – a family van, for starters – and they all go out to celebrate their wedding at a cheap buffet lunch. And then the sun sets.
That sunset scene, as brief as it is, functions as a thematic bridge. Other than pictures of pristine, white-sand beaches, a Manila Bay sunset is probably the most iconic image of Philippine tourism, reproduced endlessly in travel brochures and magazines. But that sunset – a lurid crimson that fills the screen with blood-red light until it fades to black – also marks the narrative transition from day to endless night, the sunlit joy of the prologue contaminated with the bloodletting of the rest of the film. It’s the flip side, as it were, to all this natural beauty and displays of familial and religious devotion. It also serves as a key to Mendoza’s visual scheme of sorts; after sundown, we’re plunged into a harrowing darkness.
The film initially seems to employ a character path that’s terribly well-trodden – that of the loss of innocence, culminating with our formerly angelic hero washing up and staring dully at his wedding ring after the night’s horrors. But Peping is no angel, suggesting that corruption had him in its clutches early on. In a scene almost reminiscent of Bresson’s Pickpocket – it’s a series of tight closeups of protection money in plastic bags changing hands – we learn that Peping is already on the take well before he’s even a full-fledged police officer.
The enigmatic centerpiece of the film is a long, claustrophobic and deliberately disorienting van ride through Manila and to the provinces, involving the cops and cops-in-training, with their victim bound and gagged and bleeding on the floor. (Maria Isabel Lopez, now the gracefully aging veteran of arty softcore flicks, thanklessly plays the prostitute; speaking of acting vets, watch for Lou Veloso in a cameo as a justice of the peace.)
This sequence isn’t quite the same as the technical feat of the opening of Tirador, from 2007 (a breakneck run through a Manila slum, almost as expertly choreographed as that chase scene in Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break). But it’s the closest to a coherent visual and aural stylistic totality that Mendoza has come, at least in the films of his I’ve seen. It’s a suffocating bit of cinema, and it successfully achieves a nauseating, if hypnotic, effect, with visual and aural stimuli either reduced to a minimum or assaulting the viewer with its blared intensity: handheld camera quivering throughout, brief flashes of neon, unbearably loud police sirens, a queasy sub-bass rumble on the soundtrack, irregular swaths of truck headlights sweeping across the car interior but barely illuminating its occupants sitting in the dark.
In most any film, this dramatic lull would be the occasion for an explanatory flashback. It’s supposed to be a police “operation,” but it turns out to be more of a personal vendetta. Or something. We get no explanations; indeed, one of the horrors of the narrative is that we, like the protagonist, seems to have stumbled into all this in medias res: no reason, no justification (as if that could even be done), but simply presented as a common occurrence, with brutality as a state of being, torture as part of standard operating procedure.
Which leads me to Mendoza’s troubling lesson for the Cannes audience: we understand that this sort of deep-seated corruption, the blatant disregard for human rights, is systemic in and endemic to the Philippines and sits comfortably, with little sense of contradiction, with Catholic fervor. That’s fine – because it’s true – but it’s also nothing new.
There’s a lot of ideological throat clearing in the background that’s meant to be part of the production design, but it announces itself as loudly as the political campaign posters in Tirador. (See my earlier blog entry.) The prostitute’s stripper name, for instance, is Madonna. There’s a quotation about never losing integrity on the back of Peping’s criminology school uniform. There’s a faded poster of Jesus, heart surrounded by thorns, just above the basement room where Madonna is about to be raped and murdered. There’s a massive billboard that reads, “Jesus is the way, the truth and the life.” (For some reason, the subtitles are deployed throughout to point out things we can already read in English, to annoying effect, so the billboard is also subtitled.) It’s the cinematic equivalent of Maoist heightening of the contradictions, but to whose benefit, really?
One can contrast this, for instance, with the implicit political critique of the last few minutes of Pasolini’s Salò: the horror comes not just from the violence committed upon the youths, but the fact that the audience is led to participate vicariously in the ostensibly “pleasurable” violations. It’s this visual suturing of the audience with the fascists – via the binoculars they use to peep at the executions from afar – that heightens the discomfort. It’s slightly similar here: Peping is our surrogate, the young naïf with whom we’re supposed to identify. He recoils in horror and makes feeble plans to run away, but he’s obligated to follow orders. And we know why, what with his young life as a husband and father, and a potentially lucrative career as a policeman ahead of him – and of course, a violent, perhaps fatal reprisal from his supposed friends in the force.
But in Mendoza’s handling, the equation of pleasure and vision isn’t quite similar. There’s a telling scene, for instance, when Peping is ordered to bring as many plastic bags (those again) to the basement for proper disposal of the body parts. He enters the cellar in trepidation, but the camera lingers a little too long on his horrified face as he witnesses the carnage, then on the lieutenant calmly washing his bloody shirt in the bathroom sink and rifling through a closet looking for clothes, and then the camera zooms in again on Peping’s distraught features as he looks at what’s left of the woman – that is, the camera looks everywhere except at the victim of their acts of violence. But soon enough the camera does swing away and pan briefly across the mutilated parts strewn on the bloody bed – the ambient rumble on the soundtrack now rising in volume – and it feels like a cheap horror-movie tactic.
“But that’s standard,” my Twitter friend Angela said, referring to that withholding as a means of creating suspense, and that’s precisely the problem. It feels like teasing, because it’s too many beats too long, and so the audience’s bond with the protagonist is severed: he sees the carnage, but we don’t. It’s one sequence – perhaps the sequence – where a more clinical, less stylized editing should have been more effective. It seems to dull Mendoza’s critique: you’re not supposed to be able to look away, and yet here the camera plays a little game of footsie, no pun intended, with the viewer.
So is Kinatay really worth a Best Director award for Mendoza at Cannes, or the “worst film in the history of the Cannes Film Festival,” as Roger Ebert famously put it?** (Surely Ebert can’t know that for sure.) For all its bodily-fluid excesses, Mendoza’s previous film, Serbis (see my earlier blog entry) was almost heartwarming in comparison to Kinatay; after all, it’s the story of a family struggling to keep their shit together (literally!). (And perhaps that’s the point: Kinatay ends with a similar scene of domesticity, after the commodification of relations in Serbis is taken to its brutal extreme.) But Serbis, at least, was made with a lubricious verve; on the whole, Kinatay just comes across as an ugly film.
As social critique, Kinatay makes its point with Mendoza’s usual lack of restraint, but it’s difficult to take this high-mindedness seriously when it’s undermined by exploitation-flick theatrics. There’s no question, though, that Kinatay is formally daring, but perhaps it’s precisely the cinematic form itself that oppresses the viewer. One realizes quickly, once Peping enters the van and they commence their long journey into night, that there is no escape; the camera keeps rolling and one is trapped along with them. And one might agree that life is perhaps too short for such self-inflicted punishments.
*Indeed, Kinatay isn’t nearly as horrific and violent as most folks would have you believe either, but then, I’m probably not most audiences. Angela (who I met for the first time at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts screening the other week) observed that it was the language that really got to her. I think I understand why: audiences may be used to seeing gore (and alas, the occasional sexual violence) on screen, but the uncommonly abusive language in Kinatay, specifically directed at a woman — and in Tagalog, at that — is far more of a rarity. (We don’t, in fact, really see Madonna being beaten, mostly because the scene is shot only in available light – it’s the sound of punches and slaps and cries that’s difficult to take.)
**I was tempted to write an entry instead about the aggrieved Filipino reaction to Ebert’s blog post. It’s understandable in a certain sense. Filipino films screen so rarely at Cannes – and by extension, Pinoys get so little international recognition – that to have the biggest household name in American film criticism describe a Filipino movie in such absolute terms – “the worst!” – would have been seen as an insult to the entire country. Given what I knew of Mendoza’s mostly uneven but nonetheless fascinating output however, I was a little more willing to give Ebert the benefit of the doubt than to rush to the defense of my hurt compatriots, a great majority of whom seemed like they hadn’t even seen the film. Alas, Filipino national pride is wounded quickly and often.
And even though she didn’t get to see the film, my good friend Valerie Soe has a thoughtful blog post, from almost exactly a year ago, about violence and the ugliness of Kinatay which she juxtaposes with recent events in the Philippines. (See also the comment section for a conversation between her and Oliver Wang.)