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.
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There’s a terrific scene in Brillante Mendoza’s new film that involves a goat. It’s a goat that wanders in, lost, through a hole in the wall of a filthy theater and ends up, as goats are wont to do, blocking the audience’s view of the movie. One would think it wouldn’t matter, since no one’s really watching all the softcore porn on screen – they’re too busy having sex with each other. But the goat’s bleating rouses the audience members from their ministrations, self-administered or otherwise: people stopped in mid-blowjob, sweaty coitus interrupted… by a goat, of all things. The confused goat runs up and down the aisles in panic, with the audience, pulling up their pants and running after it in vain. The goat manages to escape their clutches and run out to the lobby, only to be followed by the theater’s employees – all members of the Pineda family, our protagonists — scrambling madly to catch it. For a brief, almost transporting moment, we have the different levels of clientele united in one fruitless, hilarious endeavor: not to get off, but to get the goat. The goat escapes nonetheless.
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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.)
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