I knew that sooner or later, a Filipino indie film would win awards in international film festivals. As I kept on telling friends, it is very easy to satisfy European festival judges. Just give them a good dose of poverty, a dash of culture and some nudity. And if you really want to win, add some scenes denigrating Filipino customs, politics, bureaucracy or society.
When Brillante Mendoza won as Best Director for Kinatay (Butchered) in 2009 in Cannes, I was glad and curious. Does it mean that Filipino film-making has finally come of age, or did Mendoza simply followed the winning formula? I hoped that it was the former. I’ve also heard that he is quite well-connected in Cannes.
I saw Mendoza’s Serbis and Tirador. I liked Serbis although I think it could have been made better.
For a year or so, I’ve been trying to find a DVD copy of Kinatay. I find it strange that nobody seems to be selling it here. I couldn’t even find it in the Internet. Until now. Finally, I downloaded a copy from the Internet!
FILM AS ART OR AS SOCIAL PRACTICE
When I was at graduate film school, I had a long-running discussion with the dean on whether Film should be viewed as Art or as Social Practice. In that college, the “politically correct” view was the Film-As-Social-Practice school of thought. I, on the other hand, stuck with the Film-As-Art principle.
When the Director of the premier state-run Film School in China visited the university, I grabbed the opportunity in the open forum to ask the Director on his thoughts about the Film-As-Art / Film-As-Social=Practice debate. His answer was very straightforward. He said that if you want social practice, go read a newspaper! I felt so happy because I felt vindicated.
Finally, the Dean asked me to name artistic Filipino films. I mentioned a couple of Lamberto Avellana films. She said that those were done a long time ago. She wanted me to name recent ones. I named a couple made in the 1980s. She wanted a more recent one – in the late 90s or early 2000s. When I couldn’t, she asked, “So where does that leave us?” She explained that since we couldn’t talk of Filipino films as Art then we better talk of them as Social Practice, otherwise, there was nothing to talk about.
And so, I started “reading” Filipino films as social practice. It made good academic articles. But something did not feel right. When I read my articles, they were all about the political economy of the films, the social, psychological, philosophical and political aspects surrounding the films. But the articles did not indicate whether the films are good or not, in the sense of being artistically beautiful. Anyone who would read them would presume that the films were “good”.
So later on, I made it a point to include in the last third of the article my critique on the film as an artistic product. I would then mention the flaws in the narrative, the plots, the acting, the cinematography, etc. I just couldn’t let the reader believe that the film was nice to watch when it actually was not.
It is quite unfortunate that many film school graduates, who later on become filmmakers or critics or festival judges, do not have an appreciation of what makes a good artistic film.
I subscribe to Matthew Arnold’s dictum that the aim of art criticism is “to know the best that is known and thought in the world, and by in its turn making this known, to create a current of true and fresh ideas”. Matthew Arnold’s definition of culture, with the Arts as the main cultural products, as “the best that has been said and thought in the world” is nowadays pooh-poohed by Marxists and so-called progressives. I may belong to a dying breed of artists and critics who heartily approve of Arnold’s statements.
Some art collectors spend millions of dollars to acquire works of art presumably because they are “the best that has been said and thought in the world”.
THE WORST FILM EVER
The film critic and screenwriter Roger Ebert, whom Forbes magazine called “the most powerful pundit in America” described Kinatay as the worst film ever screened at the Cannes Festival. Ebert wrote in his Chicago Sun-Times column:
Here is a film that forces me to apologize to Vincent Gallo for calling “The Brown Bunny” the worst film in the history of the Cannes Film Festival.
After extensive recutting, the Gallo film was redeemed. I don’t think editing is going to do the trick for “Kinatay.”
I suppose Mendoza is a fan of Gallo. Both movies are in a sense, “road movies”. The controversial scene in the Brown Bunny has its counterpart in Mendoza’s Serbis. The fellatio scene in the Brown Bunny was controversial because the woman is an established Hollywood actress while in the Mendoza film, the woman was a nobody. The fellatio woman in Mendoza’s film was not even supposed to be a woman. But as far as I could tell, it was a Filipina woman, not a transvestite. At any rate, it was reported that people walked out of the theater showing both movies.
But I must say, Serbis is a much better film than Kinatay.
As usual with Mendoza’s films, the setting is the slum area. This, of course, can only score big points from the European viewers. Then comes the long scenes with characters walking along the slum neighborhood and the streets of Manila. Learning his lesson from Serbis where European viewers became squeamish because of too much dirt, Mendoza downplayed the dirty part. But he still showed the uncollected tons of garbage bags near the main characters’ house.
The Western viewers are suckers for these scenes. It makes them feel vicariously how it is to live in such squalid places. For some academics or critics, this is their “research” into the social practice in these foreign parts.
The main couple (Peping and Cecille) act as the tourist guides for the foreign viewers. They walk along the alleys of their slum neighborhood and drops off their child with a neighbor. With more walking, the viewers-cum-tourists-cum-researchers get to take a glimpse at everyday life in a Manila ghetto. The couple then take a tricycle ride before taking a jeepney ride to go to the municipal hall.
Wow, the foreign viewers just had a triple whammy — walking along the alleys of the ghetto, then taking a tricycle ride and then a jeepney ride. Most of these foreigners probably have not even seen a tricycle or a jeepney in their lives. The viewers-cum-tourists get to see more of Manila from the vantage point of someone in a tricycle and a jeepney. It must be exciting for them just as I am excited seeing people ride elephants or camels or landspeeder (like Luke Skywalker) for everyday purpose.
In the jeepney, the woman suddenly broke into tears. It could be because of the song where the female singer tells the lover to leave the other woman because they (the singer and the lover) would be better off together. Peping chided the girl for being dramatic. (The subtitles say that Peping said “Are you gonna cry on our wedding day?” What he actually said was: “Ito naman panay nagdrama dahil ika____ (unintelligible) tayo,e.” (First, the Tagalog is ungrammatical. Second, he pronounced drama with the accent on the second syllable. The word ikakasal (to get married) was unintelligible because he was laughing from the second syllable. A Tagalog-speaking viewer could just surmise that Peping meant that his mate was being (melo)dramatic as usual (panay means always))
My friend and I didn’t know why she cried because Peping’s line was misspoken. Later, Peping said “Pipikutin mo na lang nga ako, e”. The English subtitle indicated: “It is you who forced me here, you know.” From the English, one would not know where or how or what is she forcing him to do. But in Tagalog, he was saying that she is forcing him to marry her. “Pikot” means a “shotgun wedding”. It’s such a chauvinistic thing to say. But then, this is a misogynistic film.
MORE TOURISTIC SCENES
The jeepney passed by a scene where a man was on a high billboard threatening to jump and commit suicide. There is a crowd watching him, including policemen and his mother imploring him to come down.
I have seen movie and TV scenes of individuals on top of buildings and ledges threatening to jump down – but they are all in Hollywood movies like in Accidental Hero. I don’t recall seeing such a scene in Filipino movies, especially with a major character threatening to jump down a high place.
I believe there are no such scenes in Filipino movies because that rarely happens in real life. I have spent decades walking and cruising along the streets of Metro Manila and I have never seen such a sight.
Why waste precious movie time on such a scene that is not pertinent to the story? The answer is: Because the film has a very thin story line and so much of the movie time is spent guiding the “viewer-tourists” on a tour of “la vie quotidienne” (everyday life) in Manila.
In order to have more scenes for the “tourist” foreign viewers, the relatives of the couple went the city hall separately, even though they most probably live in the same house or are neighbors. And so the relatives (an old lady and two kids) take the viewers on a tour of the city hall and its vicinity — passing by a flag ceremony and a mass wedding, among others.
The characters then came to the judge’s sala, a pitiful cramped room. The judge was played by Lou Veloso in his usual “over-acting” style. He asks the couple idiotic questions like “Are you pregnant?” He then gives a lecture on the importance of education. Yet, even though the bride said she was just 19 years old, he did not ask for a certificate of parental approval nor inquired about the presence of her parents (there appeared to be none). According the Philippine law, women below the age of 21 need parental approval.
What is even more amazing is that in the ceremony proper, he mentions “sa ating Kristiyanong comunidad” (in our Christian community”). Judicial weddings are not supposed to be Christian weddings. In fact, the Constitution mandates the separation of the Church and the State! How could non-Christians be married by a judge if the judge marries them in the name of the Christian community?
THE MOST UNHERALDED WEDDING
Maybe in Mendoza’s social circle, people go their own weddings as if they are just going to see a movie. The couple wore everyday clothes. In fact, the groom was just wearing his college uniform. The couple take jeepney or tricycle rides instead of a taxi cab or a friend’s car. (Oh, they did ride aboard a friend’s car after the wedding). The parents of both sides appear to be absent but there is a grandmother around. After the wedding, they go eat at a restaurant. After lunch, they go their separate ways.
The groom proceeds to his school and attends classes. Oh, what an exemplary student. He attends school even on his wedding day!
And what a fine teacher he has. The teacher offers P100 to the student who could answer his question!
After school, the groom goes to his job collecting money from bookies. Funny thing is, these bookies are all ambulant vendors in a single street. Maybe he is collecting “protection money” from these vendors.The film is not clear on this, as in many matters.
ANOTHER ROAD TOUR
The film takes the viewers on a night tour of Manila, this time along the main highway, EDSA.
Peping rides in the van with his boss, a police captain, and colleagues. Along the way, the boss picks up a prostitute from a strip joint. The strip joint scene gave Mendoza a chance to titillate his tourist-viewers by showing a couple of ugly topless dancers.
The prostitute’s name is Madonna. What a cliche!
Without giving any reason, the boss’s right hand man, another police officer, starts punching the hooker and duck tapes her mouth. He continues hitting her until she is unconscious.
But Brillante did not show the actress being hit. It was all sound effects with the camera focusing mainly on Peping. It’s cheaper and easier for the actors that way.
And of course, Mendoza had to show that Filipinos pee on the road. So the van stops somewhere and everybody pee on the roadside.
To tell the audience that something really bad is going to happen, a horror-movie musical score accompanies Peping and the road trip.
For an added suspense, a police crew cab arrives on the scene and follows the van for a long time. Even though the highway was wide, the police vehicle refuses to overtake the van. This is supposed to make the viewers think that the police will stop the van.
To cap the film, there was the rape scenes. They were described by some writers as unerotic. But the woman was not even tied up. In a couple of scenes, she was sitting with her back on the head board wearing only a fully opened blouse and a fully naked man, with his back on the camera, forcing himself on her mouth.
Foreign critics praising the film insist that the rape scenes are unerotic because the woman is not even pretty. Perhaps the notion that Ma. Isabel Lopez, the actress who portrayed the prostitute, was ugly came from what the police characters in the film kept on repeating — that she was old and past her prime. They kept on ridiculing her supposedly aging body. But even the main character, Peping, remarked that “she’s still beautiful, still sexy.” She certainly is prettier than the couple of younger topless dancers in the nightclub scene.
Ms. Lopez was the Bb. Pilipinas (Miss Philippines)-Universe 1982 and was a box office queen and top sex symbol in the 1980s. It is unfortunate that she went through bad times and is now forced to accept such demeaning roles.
Mendoza wanted to get Rossana Roces for that role. Rossana, though also past her prime, is younger and more beautiful (esp. in Western standards) than Ms. Lopez. Ms. Roces is white-skinned. Ms. Roces had the good sense to turn down the role.
The climax of the movie is the butchering of Madonna; thus, the title Kinatay, which means butchered.
But with all the butchering going on, there wasn’t much blood shown. There was no blood on the walls nor even on the head board. There wasn’t much blood on the men either.
The twist in the end reminded me of the short stories I used to write in high school. I was imitating Hitchcock. I always wanted endings that would surprise, even shock, the readers. Kinatay is such a film – very sophomoric, nay, juvenile.
CANNES 2009’S THIRD BEST FILM?
Mendoza won the Prix de la mise en scène or the Best Direction Award. It is the 3rd most prestigious award of the festival.
Technically, the film did not win an award. The director did. Maybe the jury wanted to reward him for making such a low-budget film (I’m sure it is the cheapest-made film in the festival) and dared to enter it in Cannes for competition?
I don’t know what were in the minds of Isabelle Huppert and company. I’ve seen Antichrist, Inglorious Basterds, Un prophete and Taking Woodstock. They were all immensely better than Kinatay. Un Prophete won the Grand Prix. I haven’t seen the Palm D’or winner Das weiße Band by Michael Haneke
Even the film Dogtooth, which was in the Un Certain Regard section, is a much better film than Kinatay.
Kinatay followed the formula to the hilt — showing urban poverty but in a subtle way (the walking tour guide), nudity (topless dancers and the “rape” scenes), Filipino everyday culture (the wedding, the mass wedding, the flag ceremony, the peeing on the road, the Christian icons — “Jesus is the Way” billboard, the Sacred Heart poster — etc.), and denigrating Philippine bureaucracy and society (the corruption of the police through protection money from illegal gambling, drugs and prostitution, and the culture of impunity -mindless killing).
In Mendoza’s Manila, police captains not only give protection to illegal gambling, prostitution and drug trafficking, they also kill and rape simply for the sake of killing and raping and with no fear of being caught.
GLAD BUT NOT HAPPY
As a Filipino, I am very glad that Mendoza won the Best Director Award. But as a film buff, a Film Studies scholar and a film critic, I am very sad that his film is so mediocre.
Canees 2009’s Jury President Isabelle Huppert and Brillante Mendoza are planning to make a film together in the Philippines next year. Mendoza would be the perfect tourist guide for her. I suppose she was intrigued by the Manila slums and the EDSA roadside.