Brillante Mendoza: Kinatay/Lola (Philippines 2009)
I still find it ironic that I have to go to Germany to see films from Southeast Asia, but yesterday both Kinatay and Lola by Brillante Mendoza opened here in Berlin, and I took them in while on my summer vacation. (I think that before these two films there were less than five movies from the Philippines that have been released theatrically in Germany.) On my way here I caught Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee in a packed cinema in Bangkok (where the Cannes winner plays in only one mid-sized cinema), and almost missed my connecting flight because of it. Both Lola and Kinatay received only a limited release in the Philippines and have been released in Germany and France so far, which make them the break-through movies for Brillante Mendoza in Europe. (Lola will also be released in Spain, other territories might follow.) For me, Kintay brings up uncomfortable questions about the way Western movie fans and reviewers buy into certain notions about life in a Third World country without bothering to critically question the plausibility of what they are shown in this movie.
I don’t have much to say about Lola, which is a well-crafted, realist drama in Mendoza’s trademark style full of long takes shot with a hand-held camera, that follows his protagonists through their routines and ordeals. It makes effective use of its location, an area in the Malabon neighborhood of Manila that is frequently flooded during the rainy seasons due to the incompetence of the city administration. In true Philippine style, the locals approach the problem with stoic pragmatism, taking out their bancas (small wooden boats) and rowing through the streets of the city that they used to walk. In a way, that is the main theme of all of Mendoza’s films: how Filipinos adapt to living conditions that would drive many people to despair or protest. Or how they, as many of his bland, unmoved protagonists simply sneak out of the hopeless situations they find themselves in, as the Coco Martin’s characters do in one way or another in Serbis and in Kinatay.
One of the two Lolas (Tagalog for “Grandmother”, a rather honorific name, very different from the “Oma” in the German subtitles) is played by Anita Linda, formerly a beautiful leading lady in the Golden Age of Philippine cinema in the 1950s, who starred in classics like Geraldo de Leon’s Sisa (1951), was rediscovered by Lino Brocka in the 1970s, and has become a favorite of some of the young Filipino independent film makers of today. She plays the frail matriarch of a family who lost one son in a mugging. While she scrambles to find the money to pay for his funeral, the grandmother of the killer tries to get him out of jail. As with most of Mendoza’s film, the story unfolds over a short period of time in a quite limited environment, an aesthetic that Mendoza and his frequent script writer Amando Lao have developed as a reaction towards the budget restraints they are typically working with or against. Lao has used the term “material aesthetics” in an interview I did with him and Mendoza to describe how they develop their stories out of the environment they are dealing with.
Kinatay is a much more controversial film, and it is hard to believe that these two, very different films were shot more or less back to back, with mostly the same team and some of the same actors. It won Mendoza an award as best director in Cannes in 2009, and got very harsh reviews back than, most famously by Roger Ebert, who declared in his review of the film “that there may not be ten people in the world who will buy a ticket to this movie and feel the money was well spent.”
Kinatay is about the rape and killing of a prostitute – who cannot pay her drug debts – by the goons of a corrupt police official, her body gets chopped into pieces and the bloody bags with her body parts are thrown out of the car window of the gang, as they return to Manila. We see the story through the eyes of Peping, a police trainee, who more or less involuntarily gets involved in the murder. In a way, there is not much of a reason to see the film, if you have read a couple of reviews of the movie, watched the trailer, and are familiar with Mendoza’s style, as the film plays out exactly as you would expect it. Apart from a brief scene at the end, when Peping’s taxi home has a flat tire, there is nothing surprising in the film, everything else takes place exactly as expected after studying some reviews.
The first twenty minutes, where we see Peping getting married in a brief ceremony, are shot on film, while the rest is shot in grainy HD video. Everything looked muddy, at least in the print I say here, and in the night scenes, that show the kidnapping and the killing of the prostitute Madonna (played by former beauty queen and bomba actress Maria Isabel Lopez, who was in many sexy films in the 1980s and 1990s, including Elwood Perez’ sleazy cult classic Silip) are for long periods so dark that it is hard to tell what exactly you are watching. (The credits list 14 light technicians who must have worked hard to make most of the film almost unwatchable dark.) Unlike Serbis or even his debut Masahista, where Mendoza made effective use of his low-budget equipment, in this film, that was shot on a much higher budget, the cinematography is disappointing.
However, these are questions of taste. What I found interesting in the international reactions towards the film is how they take for granted the premise of the film, that this kind of crime is common in the Philippines. That is simply not the case. While there have been instances, where crime victims have been chopped to pieces in the Philippines (as in many other countries in the world), starting with the first “chop chop lady” Lucila Lalu in 1967, I would relegate the plot of the film to the realm of the Urban Folklore that especially the Philippine middle class loves to believe and to tell and retell as a justification for their security-conscious lifestyle in gated communities, where contact with the outside world is made mostly in huge cars with darkened windows on the way to the next shopping mall. A brief internet search for crimes like this makes clear that in the Philippines, they are mostly crimes of passion between ex-lovers or family quarrels that end in this kind of gruesome violence. Even though I do not have any hard and fast numbers, I would still argue that this kind of crime is not more or less common in the Philippines than in many other countries around the globe, not the symptom of a degenerated society that the movie makes them out to be.
Director Mendoza has been remarkable vague in talking about the source for his story, yet Western media have been quick in buying into the notion that this is a typical story “from the dark underbelly of Manila”, where “life is cheap” and “everything can be bought for a price” – maybe because these clichés fit well into First World ideas about life in a Third World country. That is not to say that the Philippines are not a very violent country (as the recent Ampuatan massacre in Mindanao has shown again) or that the police is not corrupt and involved in crimes in Manila. But this particular, inflated story makes one wonder about the meticulous research that supposedly is the foundation of all of Mendoza’s films and about his commitment to realism. And it makes one wonder about the motives of his Western fans who uncritically lap up such tall stories.
To me, Kinatay is not a realist film, but rather in the tradition of the “massacre movies” that directors like Carlos J. Caparas have turned into a Filipino genre in its own right in the 1990s. While true crime films have a long history in the Philippines, that go back at least until The Moises Padilla Story from 1961 by Gerry De Leon, it was former comic book artist Caparas, who used real crimes as basis for exploitative orgies of violence that disguised their voyeurism with hypocritical titles such as Jesus, pray for us. (For this, he was recently declared National Artist of the Philippines in a controversial decision by former president Gloria Arroyo.) These films have little concern neither for the victims nor for coherence and truthfulness – something that has unfortunately also to be said about Kinatay. And the similarities do not end there – during the final slaughter you get the impression that even the gory special effects were done by the same people, who furnished the artificial dead bodies for Caparas’ movies on the cheap.