Captive (Brillante Mendoza, 2012) June 15, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, French Spring.
Directed by Brillante Mendoza
Written by Brillante Mendoza, Patrick Bancarel, Boots Agbayani Pastor, and Arlyn dela Cruz
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Kathy Mulville, Mark Zanetta, Maria Isabel Lopez, Mercedes Cabral, Ronnie Lazaro
There is hardly anything in Captive that puts the Philippines in a positive light, but director Brillante Mendoza makes it clear that he doesn’t give a fuck. Reading his interviews, it is obvious that he chooses to present these ugly situations because no other filmmaker is brave enough to confront them, and as someone positioned in the forefront of Philippine cinema—being the first Filipino to compete in three of the world’s most prestigious film festivals: Cannes, Venice, and Berlin—his voice is certainly one to be reckoned with, a privilege that, regardless of your perception of his work, he has earned through the years. However, being an established international filmmaker entails greater responsibilities, and his inability to fulfill some of them leaves him in a dangerous terrain. Lola poses doubts regarding his opportunistic tendency, but Captive confirms it—in fact it commits the biggest blunder of his career, one that shatters all his good credentials, exposes his sickening imprudence, and makes him deserving of many harsh judgments.
When you watch Captive, you are never drawn to it: it paints a repulsive picture and you accept it as it is. You sit there and allow it to rape you. You won’t have any moment to process its images and understand what they mean because they don’t mean anything else aside from what’s there. The visuals are arresting as much as they are hollow. From start to finish, Mendoza has not considered the possibility of letting go of his shock and awe treatment. Every sequence has to be a spectacle, every scene has to grab your attention, and every turn of event has to add to the chaos. The film is so preoccupied by this sense of entitlement that it actually strangles you, a ploy that disables you to assess its worth. He shows Muslim rebels throwing a box of bibles at the water and hitting a Catholic statue with a gun, but he doesn’t want you to ponder on those. Instead he wants you to notice the parallelism he makes with the presence of wild animals: the snake eating a chick, the bats hanging from the tree branches, the hornets disturbing a funeral, the mythical bird that Isabelle Huppert sees flying around the forest. This goes on for at least two hours. As a viewer, how can you not be offended by this setup?
Amid the uproar provided by the encounters between the military and the insurgents, the movie’s quiet moments stand out the most. There’s that scene where Isabelle eats a cracker and looks distraught, her face sweaty and numb from all the day’s events, trying hard to make sense of everything. The interview with the American couple—Martin and Gracia Burnham?—and Isabelle lights up a number of emotional fuses, connecting realities that have gradually become hazy as the movie progresses. There’s another sequence where Isabelle spends time with one of his captors, a teenager whose early life is exposed to violence. They talk about their personal lives, Isabelle remembering her children in France and the kid, though hesitant at first, eventually opening up his thoughts on his religion. It’s supposed to feel like a gloomy mother-and-child portrait, a taste of water in the desert, only it does the opposite because Mendoza handles the dynamics carelessly. When the boy puts his head on Isabelle’s lap there is some sort of gesture that suggests sexual tension, an awkwardness that may be natural in some cases, but in the movie looks so gross, leaving an incomprehensibly bad aftertaste.
Of course, Mendoza is a clever craftsman. Some of the observations mentioned above do not sink in fully as you watch the film. You stay in your seat until it becomes clear that there is nothing in it that will stop its penchant for sadism. The film may thrive on filth and noise but it is never void of perspective. Sloppily, it unfolds the story and presents several contradictions. You can feel the material push through methodically, with every bit of violence and anger shoved down your throat, as the characters are reduced to lousy caricatures of good and evil. The hostage-takers and hostages stay with you but only as cardboard cutouts: they are victims of misrepresentation, the writers failing to provide them with a sincere emotional side that holds up until the end. Captive is based on true events—the infamous Dos Palmas kidnappings in May 2001, whose duration intersected with the September 11 attacks in the US—but not on true sentiments. Mendoza simplifies the whole Mindanao issue, heedless of its historical and political complexity, and dismisses the nitty-gritty of the armed conflict. Should the producers decide to show this film in Mindanao, it’s like waiting for a bomb to explode and wreak havoc.
Furthermore, it is not a question of faithfulness to the material. It is a matter of presenting a narrative without taking advantage of its multifaceted nature, without subscribing to the ideas that promote aggression based on differences, and without affronting a piece of history that is bigger than whatever the movie is trying to say. Mendoza could have fictionalized the details of the kidnappings and done away with the dates and places, and manage to achieve a much thoughtful view of the situation—one that could have started with an honest admission that he is not above it—but instead he illustrates in depth his insubstantial assessments and conclusions. It is a film that skates on polemics and cacophony, a political movie without a respectable principle, a traveling circus filled with shows that offer cheap thrills. What’s worse than a badly made film is an egotistical movie that cannot hide its posturing, and Mendoza, who has made enough movies to deserve scrutiny from head to toe, is again oblivious to the fact that the personal is always political, that his intentions are clear regardless of his press statements.
Having considered its merits, you may ask: is Captive an experience worth having? Where do you draw the line between its Machiavellian vanity and actual involvement? When do you realize that the discussions it provokes are never really meant to enrich one’s understanding of the war in Mindanao but to emphasize the director’s shady and astigmatic view of it? Arguments will be made and piled on top of one another, but the answers, depending on your sensibilities as a moviegoer, cannot be anything but well defined. You cannot be halfhearted about it. Perhaps even its initial three-hour running time cannot hide its stink. Its trickery is calculated, and it’s acceptable that the urge to throw up is triggered not by the film but by the filmmaking.