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Kinatay (Brillante Mendoza, 2009) September 8, 2009

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Indie Sine, Noypi, UP Screening.
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kinatay 01

Directed by Brillante Mendoza
Written by Armando Lao
Cast: Coco Martin, Mercedes Cabral, Maria Isabel Lopez

BEST DIRECTOR, UP PREMIERE, POLITICS

Though seemingly too obvious to mention, it is important to point out that the Cannes Film Festival jury gave recognition not to the film Kinatay, but to its director Brillante Mendoza. Like awards given to actors and technicians such as cinematographers and editors, the Best Director prize is specifically bestowed based on the director’s contribution to the film, and does not necessarily signify that the film as a whole is as equally exceptional as its direction.

It is a valid query, however, that if the film is recognized for its direction, how can the entirety of it not be good. Of course there are things that need to be considered: the performances of the actors, the story and screenplay, the art direction, the visual language, and the sound design and music. Inside these categories there are still smaller areas that the director, with the help of his crew, needs to decide upon to contribute to the overall look of the film. The bottom line is, cinema is a collaborative art. As much as the director fervently holds the vision of the film, he still needs people, and if this crew turns out to be the best people he could ever work with, then the award given to him is more of an achievement in keeping these talents in proper tune and making good use of them in his film.

Thus, it is just great that after the Philippine premiere of Kinatay in the UP Cine Adarna, there is a discussion that followed. Mendoza and his actors were present to share their experiences in Cannes and tell us more about the film than what we already know. UPFI Theater Coordinator Yason Banal, UPFI Faculty Director Ed Lejano and filmmaker Carlos Siguion-Reyna also participated in the discussion. When asked why he thinks the jury liked his film, Mendoza humorously answered, Siguro kasi madilim siya. Hindi nila nakikita. (Maybe because it was too dark. They can’t see it.) The audience laughed not only because it is true, but also because there is more to it than being consistently dim. Mendoza added matter-of-factly that the one they showed in Cannes is less dark compared to what they showed here, something he attributed to the quality of the projector that the UP Film Institute has.

During the Q&A, questions were fired one after another. People actually volunteered to ask questions, unlike in usual circumstances when a long dead air is anticipated as the emcee begs for audience participation. Though it is not completely unforeseeable, considering that Kinatay marks the first time that a Filipino won in feature-film competition in the festival, it is still remarkable how the audience members were inspired to ask various questions and interpreted both the content and treatment of the film differently, and surprisingly opposed to what the foreign critics, especially Roger Ebert, had to say.

Gabriela Women’s Partylist Rep. Liza Maza remarks on how she was reminded by the story of Melissa Roxas while seeing the film. Roxas is a Filipino-American abducted in La Paz, Tarlac last May 2009 by alleged members of the military. She was kidnapped, along with two other men, tortured, and forced to admit her participation with the New People’s Army before finally getting freed. Her story hit the headlines as local and international human rights groups supported her claim of military torture. Roxas is also an American citizen whose government funds the military exercises to train Filipino soldiers. Former major-general Jovito Palparan, on the other hand, claimed that he received reports, a photo and a video, that allegedly confirm that Roxas is indeed a member of the New People’s Army.

Commending the film, Maza was impressed by how it succeeds in creating the atmosphere of fear and putting us in the troubling shoes of its main character. She goes on to relate the subject of the film to the issues largely blamed on the present administration, namely the extrajudicial killings and recent abductions of activists, the appalling cases of graft and corruption, the visiting forces agreement, the campaign for charter change in favor of term extension, the countless numbers of unresolved human rights violation cases, and the affronting debasement of academic freedom.

Even before the screening started, College of Mass Communication Dean Rolando Tolentino boldly raised these issues, in constant reminder of what we can do to fight them, as well as the timely comment on the president’s conferral of National Artist for Visual Arts and Film on Carlo J. Caparas, which elicited cheers from the crowd. The valiance of this sector of the UP community, in light of the political rule of viciousness in the Philippines, is always something to be admired.

When the news of Mendoza’s victory reached the web and the broadsheets, the pressure to show the film to the public becomes understandable. With a few exceptions, it is already an accepted cultural fact that a Filipino artist will only start to gain attention locally when he is noticed by the foreign people, something I would like to call the Charice Pempengco complex. Take her case. When she got licked by Oprah and Ellen Degeneres, people down here started to adore her, as if they all voted for her to win in the local singing show she had participated, which crowned her a loser. In Philippine cinema, however, that’s like expecting Halley’s comet to arrive fifty years early. Mendoza is no Manny Pacquiao or Charice Pempencgco; the Palace sees him as the filmmaker of ugly Manila. No hero’s welcome is reserved for him, well at least, a hero’s welcome flagged by the Arroyo government. But Mendoza isn’t keen on the idea of sucking up to have his films shown to the public. No sensible Filipino filmmaker would do that, even with all the golden palms, bears, and lions in his hand. Now, after the cuts given to Serbis last year, Mendoza is also not keen on letting other people decide what parts of his film are deemed “morally objectionable” and therefore unfit to be seen even by fifty-year-old babymakers. Welcome home, Brillante, hails the MTRCB.

MTRCB AS A VESTIGIAL ORGAN, CENSORSHIP, APPROVAL

The subject of the abolition of the MTRCB, through the years, has started to tire me out. While being hopeful is a trait that will get you through life in every hurdle it gives, the hopelessness it often bears as a result is leaving me sick. We have lived with it in decades, it has been involved in many controversial issues and survived five presidents, so in the throes of accepting defeat, why can’t we live with it now? Indeed, why can’t we? Hopelessness, at least for me, is not giving up. Perhaps we can continue our fight under a less narrow-minded administration, but I just don’t know when would that be. Asking for MTRCB’s abolition is beating a dead horse, slaying the slain, and helping the crows and vultures eat the corpse. In a random twist of fate, however, as stated in the press release, it has approved the public screening of Kinatay without cuts. It seems to me like giving us a candy and caressing our backs after a childish fight.

Any classification is selective. It is not as if the board is strictly following a code of conduct or a bushido to implement and justify its rulings. Everything is still wholly subjective, depending on what is perceived as fit or unfit to its members. That’s why it has members not only from the film industry but also from the academe and private sectors: to provide a different perspective. The wider the perspective is, the fairer it will be able to tell what is objectionable or not. That’s the idea at least, the alleviation of guilt in the context of fairness. The occasional change of members is done for this purpose too; so the judgment won’t be limited to a select group of people, so it won’t be too homogenous, like orders coming from a dictator in blindfold. But unfortunately, in all the millions it has contributed to the national budget (earning 50 million annually in recent years according to PCIJ), it only results in inconsistency and fallacious judgment.

From the X-rating given to Lav Diaz’s Death in the Land of Encantos just because of an exposure of genitalia and Adolf Alix’s Aurora due to Rosanna Roces’ moving breasts, or even Raya Martin’s Next Attraction because of Coco Martin and Paolo Rivero’s passionate kiss, to the wave of approved public screening of gay films that show moving genitalias of different sizes, it is either politics or plain stupidity. Or maybe a lethal combination of both. Like the issue with the recent National Artists, we are not crying foul over the choices, but with the process and the deliberate lack of consistency, and sometimes the inconsiderate disregard of it.

With the approval of Kinatay in full, it only proves the fact that the MTRCB is riding on the circumstances and not acting upon the merits of the film on its own. For one thing, the subject of Kinatay is more “objectionable” than Serbis. It covers a more sensitive political arena and presents its criticisms head on without sacrificing the style of its filmmaker. While Mendoza is clearly benefiting in his choice of subjects, there has been an improvement in his latter works in terms of direction, specifically the way he lays out the subject and lets it breathe and decide where it wants to go. There is still intervention – – the screenplay of Bing Lao overpowers the terrific improvisation – – but in a more tolerant eye it can be seen as significant to the ideology of the film. The experiment becomes less obvious and the real time scenario more “realistic”. Whereas Serbis is more graphic in sex, Kinatay resolves to the unequivocal and unwavering confluence of its form and content, with more hits than misses, and with the right combination of lower and upper jabs and straight punches.

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THE FIRST ACT, THE WEDDING, INTIMACY

The first few minutes establish the setting through short glimpses in the everyday life of its people. Shots of children playing in the street, women washing their clothes and gossiping, men drinking beer in the heat of the morning, a chicken whose head being excised, the sound of a long and busy day about to begin. The camera moves impatiently, the different noises overlapping and indistinctly creating an uncomfortable and annoying tonality. Slowly it follows the couple Peping (Coco Martin) and Cecille (Mercedes Cabral) inside their house, in an imperfectly remarkable long take as they tend to their child and leave. There is something graceful and haphazard in that shot that makes it difficult to forget, with the couple teasing each other and the camera looking after them from the window as they walk away.

Peping and Cecille leave their child to a neighbor to go to the city hall to get married. As they travel we observe how they possess an air of carefreeness brought about by their youth. From their community the camera now moves out to a larger setting: the city. We hear the whirring of cars stuck in traffic, the shouts of jeepney barkers, the drone of the factories and food stands nearby, and the cacophony of urban noises. This is Manila by day in all its broiling and dizzying glory. We see a man in a huge billboard along the highway about to jump, with his mother and some news reporters in sight. We feel the tension, but for a city dweller who is used to turn on the TV and find out another unusual thing becoming very usual, it is something that can understandably be ignored. Mendoza leaves the drama in the periphery, especially the different faces of the social condition we often see in the news, and we follow his characters’ response to them with less concern than usual.

We get to see a “kasalang-bayan” officiated by the city mayor, with the couples feeling the occasion as nothing different from a church wedding. Peping and Cecille arrive at the room where the exchange of vows will be held, along with their godfathers and godmothers, and friends and family members. It is a simple yet sincere occasion, observed with the humor of the typical wedding homily and capped with a lunch together, light but close. Peping goes to his criminology class right after, and when night comes in, he embarks on a long journey in the police sideline. His friend convinces him to participate in a shady operation, in the bait of earning extra money for his nascent family. When he gets inside the car, that’s when everything starts to be noticeably dark, literally and figuratively.

The first act speaks of authenticity – – “realistic”, if you’re more comfortable with it. Mendoza lays out the important details in his protagonist’s life with sharpness. You get the feeling that he is holding everything with his bare hands. He opts to define his present life and actions through his social involvement, the people in his community, his friends, and his response to them, things that are mostly external. There is also a sense of immediacy in the first act, providing a pressing hook on the turning point of the plot about to follow. And just like that, we feel suddenly intimate with the main character.

LUNETA, THE LONGEST DRIVE, ARCHITECTURE

The racket, as Peping finds out eventually, is to kidnap a woman who owes the boss big-time money because of drugs. Madonna (Maria Isabel Lopez) works at a night club, and the group parks the car and waits for her outside. The club sequence, as short as it is, gives an alienating and memorable grip of fear. Inside we see topless women dancing and flirting with their audience. We see Sarge (John Regala) humiliate another woman and call her a squid. The mix of the visuals and the music is a little bizarre. The vibe exudes a sublimity of a forthcoming tension, like it is the natural atmosphere of the place. Furthermore, in our point of view as the film’s audience, the casual display of uncovered breasts in public is supposed to be disturbing, but it feels more like we have stepped into the point of view of the club’s audience. The sight is enticing in its strangeness.

The intention of the group unknown to her, Madonna agrees to come with the men inside the car as it drives away. They talk about things, dealings that they have done in the past. Suddenly an intense feeling breaks in. We know the deception and have become part of it. Next thing we know Madonna is being gagged, her hands tied as she struggles, and the tension blows up. Expletives are thrown left and right as Madonna continues to fight back and wrestle. Peping realizes the felony about to happen, and with just the look in his face we know that he wants nothing to do it. But he can’t. He’s part of it already. And from there it starts to be relentlessly cruel.

The long second act, to wit, the drive from the dark city to an even darker one outside it and the murder that comes after, is the film’s pivotal moment. It is also the most fundamental, the most likely to be misinterpreted by people, and the most transcendent sequence in Mendoza’s career as a filmmaker. As there is a story to follow, Mendoza is keener on piling atmosphere on atmosphere, reinforcing it to the point of suffocation. The dim and grainy shots inside the van are interspersed with the shots of the road it travels outside, the city at night grappling them without knowing the crime they are about to commit. It alternates among the close-ups of Peping and the other men, the reflections in the mirror, the shots of the highway, the exits in it, and the lights of the cars and the lamp posts along the way. The contrast of the fussy interior and the calm, quotidian exterior works very well.

But the cinematographer is not the only one who is busy. The sound design and the music contribute a mercilessly fitting tune to the brutal preparation to the murder. When you listen to it attentively, you can differentiate which are the real sound, the created sound, and the score. The layers the three of them create, along with the lightlessness of the visuals, are intense and, in most parts, asphyxiating.  I can even call its atrociousness poetic. Mendoza chooses his words in all their grueling vigor to create an evil in past, present, and future tenses, with us tortured yet anticipating what happens next.

Quentin Taratino’s comment, that the film is a complete “eyewitness account of a murder”, accords not with the architecture of the second act but with how it connects with the first and the third. After the drive, Madonna is brought into a rundown house where she is tied-up in bed, raped, and, despite her plea for mercy, killed. But she is not only killed; she is dismembered. Peping, aside from being a witness, becomes an accessory to the crime. Kap (Julio Diaz) denies Madonna’s request for life and continues the verdict given to her. Sarge executes the plan as ordered, and with the help of his men, cuts parts of her body off, her arms, her legs, and finally her head, puts them in the sack, and cleans his bloody self in the bathroom.

MUTILATION IN HISTORY, LUCILA LALU, SARGE

In the dictionary of crime, mutilation is used as punishment in seventeenth century England for offenders of religion, mostly writers who attacked the views of the Anglican episcopacy. The ears were the common target, and there were times when pillories were used to slit them loose. In the Philippine setting, when crimes of this nature became rampant, murder by mutilation was called “Chop-chop”. Possibly the most known and controversial Chop-chop murder case happened in May 1967, with Lucila Lalu as the maimed lady. Her legs were found first near her business place in Sta. Cruz, and her headless body was discovered a day later in a vacant lot along EDSA in Makati. It was one of those sensational stories that the media feasted on and that the public responded to with fear and surprise, particularly because of the murderer’s skill to kill.

Unfortunately, despite the attention it gathered, the case remains unclear up to now. The fingers were first pointed to Lalu’s nineteen-year-old lover, but the case was eventually dropped due to the witnesses who verified the whereabouts of the suspect when the crime was committed. Less than a month later, Jose Luis Santiano surfaced and admitted the crime, only to retract his statements several days after. Despite his plea for innocence, further investigation reinforced his involvement in the crime.

Reading the news clippings at that time, it surprised me that the people then described the crime as bizarre. Clearly it was an unusual case, a strange way to kill a victim as opposed to gunning someone down or stabbing with a knife. Dismembering requires expertise, and the effort it takes to have it done, not to mention the scattering of the body parts in different cities, is something done with a certain abnormal personality. But was bizarre more fitting than heinous? Or beastly? The tag “mystery of the year” likewise affirmed the idea that the reporters then were a bit disparaging the nature of the crime, as if it was only something that actualized a murder serial they used to read. Furthermore, it was inevitable that Lalu’s life was probed to the smallest detail, particularly her relationships with other men aside from her husband.

It is not impossible that the Lucila Lalu Chop-chop Lady Murder Case was in Bing Lao’s mind when he was writing the script for Kinatay. With Lao being a curious researcher whose scrupulousness works wonders, the film may be inspired by the story, along with the other chop-chop ladies in the 80s and 90s, which he took time to study to come up with a visibly able plot and characters that stand vividly with their actions.

Santiano, with what I recall, is a dental student, something related to medical practice, which familiarizes him with the use of knives or any sharp instruments and the anatomy of the human body. The “bizarre” description used by the reporters to the Lucila Lalu case comes with a genuine admiration to the act of mutilation, the manner that requires the killer to do it. Not that admiring it commends and glorifies the crime, but you have to concede that the act itself is no no-brainer. It requires an exceptional personality. (If I may digress a bit, it is also worthy to note the success of Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter novels, particularly the TV series that is currently serialized based on them.)

Apparently this is not the first time that Sarge has done it. When he asks for a sharper tool, he knows what instrument will work efficiently or not. He also doesn’t hesitate – – he simply is a man with no heart, or he possesses the great big heart of darkness. Being the “hands of the crime”, he may well be the only person that Kap trusts in these things. Thus there was prior experience, and possibly the reason why the plan was carried out successfully – – meaning the victim was killed and mutilated and her body parts scattered to give the authorities a hard time – – is because it has been done before. The percentage of failure leans on the negative. Lao and Mendoza imply that what happened to Madonna is something that has been happening many times before, and the people behind this, who take matters of brutal justice in their hands, are still at large, walking under the same sky as we do.

FAT CHANCE, LOOPS, THE DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL

We feel the length not only through its running time but also in the texture and feeling of boundlessness, the mood driving only towards a certain direction. Being the film’s protagonist, it rests on Peping to steer the wheel, and in one moment he almost has taken it to another route, only to be overcome again by his fear. By the time when he is asked to buy balut and finds a chance to escape, we become aware of the danger that he is getting himself into. But we root for him to get away. And when he didn’t – – when he has made his way to the bus only to change his mind the last minute – – we know his position in the crime is aleatory. He didn’t seem to have much choice.

What impresses me in that crucial scene is that while it is part of the suspense of the narrative, it isn’t treated as such. There is nothing extreme about the use of music, yet what stays in your head is a ringing sound, like losing your sense of hearing. You don’t notice it looping, even if it does so for a lot of times, and even if you do, it isn’t much of a bother. Meanwhile, the camera follows Peping in different distances, much like following him in person without him knowing it. The darkness of the night clad in unpretentious curse cooperates secretly with the unavoidable attainment of the murder.

“Anything happens anytime you go out at night.” I may have imagined Mendoza saying that in an interview. In his films, the night is a character as important as their protagonists. The ending of Foster Child wouldn’t be as striking as it was if Cherry Pie Picache breaks down in broad daylight. Tirador, despite having more day scenes, has more sense of panic in its night sequences. And was the movie theater in Serbis ever bathed in light? The night has always given Filipino films a character of its own, and Mendoza’s depiction of it captures an evil of come-hither filthiness.

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THE THIRD ACT, THE CURIOUS TAXI INCIDENT, ANXIETY

The dawn breaks. The group throws the body parts in different places as the car drives away. In complete exhaustion, they stop by to eat. They order beef. They order meat. The parallelism is too casual it doesn’t seem to bother. They are back in the hustle and bustle of early morning Manila. The sound of impatient cars in the impatient city. Just like nothing happens. Just like nothing will happen. Just like the first act.

After puking in the bathroom, Peping decides to leave. He can’t eat. He asks permission and gets paid for the job. He gets into the taxi and for a while we feel that the film is about to end, just waiting for everything to sink in for Peping and us. Maybe in a minute the credits will appear on the screen, and probably a clap from somewhere will start the applause. But the credits don’t appear here yet. The drive continues. And – – as if challenging our belief in perfect timing – – the taxi breaks down. Peping gets out to find another one, which takes him forever. We look at him as he waves at every occupied taxi that comes along. The driver fixes his taxi nearby. A lifetime has passed and the driver has finally changed tires and Peping gets into the car again. He hesitates, but he just wants to go home, sleep off the long night he just had. Good for him – – his wife is cooking him a nice breakfast. And the film ends.

Peping in the third act is filled with anxiety. After the fear that he experienced during the operation, he is now encumbered by angst, fearful of what may happen in result of his involvement in the crime. What physics has to say about the law of action and reaction now applies to his state. The unpleasant jolt of conscience leaves him in a debasing situation, cornering him in the uncertainty of things out of control. If we haven’t known what he has been through we can tell that there is nothing wrong with him. He looks like any city person who copes with the everyday stress of getting from one place to another. But we know that he is bothered. It is something that Mendoza has achieved in his storytelling – – our emotional connection to his character who is not communicating – – what Liza Maza has said about putting us in his shoes.

It is often taken for granted but anxiety connects the past, present, and future. Dealing with it is a personal undertaking marked by dreadfulness, particularly in response to the unforeseeable and unavoidable things that comes after the troubling experience. Not to be overlooked is the fact that the urban setting is a melting pot of anxieties. The various factors that contribute to psychological and behavioral disproportion make the city dweller more vulnerable to anxiety, precisely because the city is more exposed to conflicting social relationships and political and economic instability. The dweller, therefore, in coping with the stress of urban life, has to keep himself in steady emotional restraint to bear the effects of this kind of depersonalized and individualistic lifestyle.

His anxiety is morally motivated. His guilt acts as catalyst to the prolonged uneasiness he feels.  What Søren Kierkegaard refers to as the “dizziness of freedom” also describes his distress. Even before the murder takes place, he longs to break free from the group. As he sees them gag Madonna he knows he is getting himself into trouble. And when the murder finally took place, he thought the guilt he has will be shared by everyone. But as they order food he realizes otherwise. These people don’t have any guilt. They believe Madonna just deserves it. If the police don’t find all her body parts, the better, that bitch. So the freedom he now has from the group, which by all means is temporary, is making him “dizzy”, making him lose his marbles.

Coco Martin’s charm has always given him an excuse to be liked. In his films, you never hate him. When he is stabbed in Tambolista you wish the guy who killed him be run over by a speeding truck. When he ponders in Daybreak you follow his deep stares into nowhere. When you see his boil popped out in Serbis you feel his pain, and swear never to drink from a Coke bottle ever again. When he plays a crook you wish he runs faster than the police. Even in his daily soap you root for his deranged evil character. Sometimes his woodiness gets annoying too. But his commanding presence in Kinatay, not to mention the deviant nuances he has given Peping, scales him farther from his generation of actors. The collaboration that started with Masahista, incidentally his first major role and Mendoza’s first film, not only opened doors and windows for his talent to be recognized, but also gave the independent community the opportunity to step up and raise the game.

ROGER, SIONIL, BRILLANTE

Roger Ebert mentions: “If Mendoza wants to please any viewer except for the most tortured theorist (one of those careerists who thinks movies are about arcane academic debates and not people) he’s going to have to remake his entire second half.” And I ask, why should he?

Mendoza has never been into this whole pleasing-the-audience business, and his films would prove that. He never had any commercial success, though in the Philippines “a commercial success” only happens among studio films, whose producers can afford to set-up interview sessions after the premiere night and broadcast it in national television. He certainly doesn’t care if he receives a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down from Ebert, or deprive him the four-starred review for that matter. But assuming it would be better, would remaking its entire second half still make Kinatay a Mendoza film? Or just an Ebert-inspired one? It may be my fault to take the dare seriously in defense of Mendoza but that argument is just too arrogant a thing to pass. Ebert mistakes his idea of the Idea for the Whim.

The intention to make a film for the foreign audience, in light of Mendoza’s unpopularity among common Filipino moviegoers (again we go back to the Charice Pempengco complex), seems too easy an argument to throw. With the news that he received boos after the film’s screening, which reminded some people of L’Aventura fifty years ago, it is sure that he will gain huge following especially from the West. And inevitable is the perception that the films that will follow Kinatay are meant for them – – to please them, and to help them reach artistic orgasm.

But most recognized artists are always accused of such. Of philandering in the mask of nationality. Admit it or not, pleasing is always in the filmmaker’s mind, and it has always been a dead-on signature to quip, perhaps with a cigarette in the middle of two fingers and a cap on, “my films are never meant to please”. There. Not pleasing is the new way to please. And that has become the standard principle of contemporary filmmakers not only from Asia but also across the world.

Kinatay isn’t for “arcane academic debates” and it certainly isn’t for the uncompromising. It is, like the pundits would say, a film that would find its audience. If it is good, then it is likely that more people will try to find it. Otherwise it will still be a staple of discussion. From there, many branches would grow, interest would be widened, and, holding some big balloons of hope, more people would be curious on our idea of cinema. Local filmmakers would be inspired to continue what they are doing, thinking that cinema is not just about winning in festivals abroad – – it is a culture that records time. Masturbatory as it is, Kinatay owns a character that only Mendoza as a filmmaker can shape, and morbidly, that is Filipino culture.

It forces you to experience the whole thing. The running time of 100 minutes feels more than a day to bear. The real-time scenario is filled with stylish devices meant to drive its points across, its treatment following a formula of shock and awe. The way it sticks to its style from start to finish asks for a debate whether it is just powerful because it is consistent or it is just consistent because the only thing it has is the power to shock. But coming from me and from most people I have spoken to about the film, Kinatay isn’t even close to sickening. In fact I find it revealing of Mendoza’s seriousness as a filmmaker. It punches its layers of shock controllably, one by one by one by one. Jessica Zafra isn’t exaggerating when she says, “I don’t know what the enraged critics saw. Kinatay is not as horrendously violent, gruesome, or sexually explicit as their reviews have led us to believe. What the hell were they watching? This cannot be the same movie.”

Likewise, it has been pointed out before that Mendoza favors unconventional storytelling because he isn’t really a good storyteller at all. The story slowly develops and ends with a little rising action, his closures not even close to being called a “climax”. Sometimes he puts different characters together, make a little plot to connect them, and there: a film. Or he figures to have the camera follow his characters behind their backs, improvise, immerse in the environment, and there: you have an incisive look at poverty which you lived through long takes and jarring camera movements. That’s true. But should the drama be always favored? Isn’t one way of focusing on the drama is not focusing on it? In Kinatay, Mendoza does a lot of defocusing, particularly towards his characters, but the way it has put us in Peping’s shoes without leaving the third person point-of-view makes it a difficult experience, whose reward is knowing that having one is a wrong thing to ask. There are more important things to see. Great art always has nationality, Sionil José observes, and Kinatay wears on its sleeve the nation that has sauntered through the woods and has never come back since.

POLITICAL SIGNIFICANCE, BROCKA, ALEXIS TIOSECO

I am appalled, however, by how Mendoza treats the subject of politics outside his film. In the Q&A he mentioned that he is just a filmmaker, and as much as possible he wants to distance himself away from the political issues that his films are dealing with. If his films have political significance then it is up to the people to interpret them or make some sense out of them. But how could that be? How could you make political films and not live up to what they are saying? How could the films be radical and its creator a wimp? I know it’s itching its way out of your head so I might as well give my two pence worth on the subject of Brocka and Mendoza. Bear in mind I am forced.

Brocka should be admired and championed in context. He should not be carelessly and irresponsibly brought up whenever a realist filmmaker starts making films on the same vein, or even just political films for that matter. Brocka not only directed Bayan Ko : Kapit Sa Patalim and Orapronobis; he also filmed Tubog sa Ginto, Tinimbang Ka Nguni’t Kulang, Insiang, Bona, and many others that are more driven by his force and brilliance as a political observer than as a political activist. It is annoying when comparisons come up, not only with Mendoza but also with Jeffrey Jeturian or any other directors who have gained prominence through their so-called poverty films, because it undermines Brocka’s greatness – – for his legacy should not stand as a mere litmus test to qualify the filmmakers that come after him. It is ruthlessly unfair to both parties but more especially to Brocka because he is being boxed into a solely political filmmaker which he isn’t. His films show many faces of politics, and not just the one that drives people into streets to protest. Brocka is not the tribunal; let go of him. He and Mendoza are different, and they have lived in different times and circumstances, and we should consider their merits in proper perspective.

One of Alexis Tioseco’s wishes is “I wish older commentators would understand: Lino Brocka is dead,” and that is true, Brocka is dead, but his vision is not. Filmmakers are not just makers of film. They are also makers of political discussion. It is like saying writers just write, they don’t think. Brocka, along with Ishmael Bernal, Mike de Leon, Mario O’Hara, Joey Gosiengfiao, and Celso Ad Castillo, made films not only to depict the tumultuous years of the Marcos regime and its after effects but also to awaken the minds of the people by not just being political, but by being real and honest. The seventies and the eighties were the years of unrest, but not all films made during those decades were expressions of dissent. Gosiengfiao, Elwood Perez, Danny Zialcita, and O’Hara wrote family dramas, comedies, and sex films. Peque Gallaga, O’Hara, and Castillo had ambitious historical productions with Oro Plata Mata, Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos, and Pagputi ng Uwak, Pag-Itim ng Tagak. Nora Aunor and Vilma Santos reached the peak of their careers. I am only mentioning textbook notes, and clearly not helping the obscurely worthy things that deserve the space, but as you can see, there is diversity, and people all know then that Philippine cinema is not only about Lino Brocka.

Unfortunately we have come at this point in our national cinema when we resort to look at the past for comfort, and sometimes for a reason to criticize our present filmmakers on what they don’t have than what they do. We should move beyond comparison, we should bear a critical eye without missing the bigger picture, and we should consider the political landscape that these filmmakers are in while trying to finish their films. Being independent now is different from being independent twenty or thirty years ago.  The importance of being a filmmaker now is never commensurate with the efforts that our greatest directors gave during their time. Though one thing hasn’t changed for sure: no matter how much we (d)evolve, cinema still depends on what you say and how you say it.

The risk that Mendoza takes to show the socio-political condition in the Philippines is the reward on its own. His latter films – – Foster Child, Tirador, Serbis, and Kinatay – – are fueled by the desire to depict the state of the country, and whether he exploits this realism or not is less relevant compared to the response that they have provoked from the audience. With the niche that he has found in world cinema, capped by his win in the Cannes Film Festival, it is certainly hoped that he would be guided to the direction of utmost responsibility. Because more important than the award itself is the initiative to help the country realize the significance of cinema not just as a political tool, but also as an indicator that reforms could be made and achieved.  The distance he prefers to have from his subject collapses the bridge, though it is not too late to fix it.

*With thanks to Karl Castro, Bolix Ortega, and Ayer Arguelles

Comments»

1. sunshine - September 9, 2009

thanks for this lengthy review. sent the link to a friend who’s doing a piece on brocka and trying to organize a retro on mendoza.

kinatay was really hard to watch for me, but it is an outstanding film. it felt like a horror film for me and reminded me of gaspar noe. although, when everyone was rooting for coco martin to escape, i was actually shouting in my head “don’t try to escape!”. that’s how afraid i was. i can only imagine what would have happened to coco if he did try to escape. completely terrifying.

btw, i do remember mendoza saying that this was the film where he took more liberties with the story and wasn’t as loyal to bing lao’s script. :)

2. Richard Bolisay - September 9, 2009

thank you sunshine. it’s horror by all means, but not the horror that most people are used to watch. regarding the liberty with the story, i think you can say that, in the final output at least, with all his bing lao-scripted films. hehe. btw, where is the retro on mendoza?

3. sunshine - September 9, 2009

it’s not final, but my friend is working on a retro in berlin where they had lav’s retro last year.

4. Richard Bolisay - September 9, 2009

that’s nice to hear. dante’s still young!

5. bruno - September 9, 2009

so donna karan this review. but amusing and intelligent. i hate roger ebert, you know.

6. myself - September 10, 2009

applause! a beautiful review! hope ganito lagi ang rebyu mo.

7. ADRIAN - September 12, 2009

Hmm… Richard, this is quite a comprehensive review/info tidbits — somewhat a gathering of what is and around KINATAY. I wasn’t there when this was shown at the UP film center, just a couple of blocks away from my dormitory. Too bad.

8. Manong Driver - September 16, 2009

Ay ang haba. Ang Lav Diaz ng mga critic! :D

9. Maya - March 12, 2010

Richard, I come to your writing by way of Alexis Tioseco’s recommendation. I was researching him for a piece I am writing and your name came up as one of the Filipino critics he felt had something to say. Without question, you do.

This is a fantastic piece of writing. It ripples out in many directions. And it does so methodically, argument by argument, such that I am quite impressed. I look forward to becoming more familiar with your work and will certainly include you in my survey of Filipino cinema and Filipino film criticism.

10. Richard Bolisay - March 12, 2010

Thank you, Maya. Nice blog you have there. Cheers!

11. Maya - March 12, 2010

Richard: Could you contact me at michael.guillen@gmail.com? I would like to propose an idea to you regarding the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival’s sidebar on Filipino Cinema.


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