Sunday, February 01, 2009

Brillante Mendoza in New York

New York Times' Manohla Dargis reviews Brillante Mendoza's Serbis (Service, 2008)

And for good measure, Dennis Lim writes about Mendoza and his films.

Have unjustly neglected Mendoza, I think; while I've seen some of his films, for one reason or another I've put off writing about him in-depth--a disservice, since he is the internationally best-known Filipino filmmaker since Lino Brocka.

His Kaleldo (Summer Heat, 2006), which incidentally won the NETPAC Award at the 2006 Jeonju International Film Festival is a lovely slice-of-life melodrama, the three interweaving stories of three daughters, as captured in bits and pieces over seven summers in the daughters' lives. Of the daughters it's Cherry Pie Picache's story that leaves the strongest impression--Cherry Pie, a character actor of considerable skill who has played supporting roles in films often unworthy of her talent, shines as the quietly suffering tomboy, unwanted and largely ignored by the family patriarch. Mendoza's handheld camera, much in the fashion of the Dardennes brothers and cinema verite, gives the stories a distinct caught-in-the-moment feel.

His Manoro the same year makes the initial misstep of inserting a slightly condescending tone towards tribal people in the opening titles of the film, then goes on to be to my mind Mendoza's finest work. The film--again with his trademark handheld camera, shooting in lengthy takes--makes little comment, and barely even has a plot (basically it's about a young woman named Jonalyn, and her attempts to educate her Aeta family and neighbors on how to read and write mainstream Filipino, at least enough to cast their ballots in the elections to be held the next day--that, and her search for her grandfather, who has disappeared into the forests to hunt wild boar).

Jonalyn is not a little inventive (to help her pupils remember the alphabet she resorts to describing their geometrical shapes and swoops and lines) and a bit of a bully, wheedling, nagging, pushing people towards political participation. Mendoza stubbornly refuses to comment on the relevance of the election process to a people barely out of the Paleolithic Age, technologically speaking. Aside from the opening titles, he refuses to pick sides on the issue of integrating with modern society, and I think the film gains greatly from this--we're left as silent witnesses to the Aetnas' lives, drawing our own conclusions as to their seemingly sad isolation from the rest of society, their seemingly quiet dignity, clinging to the tatters of their cultural identity.

Foster Child (2007) is Mendoza's take on the system of foster child care and adoption set up in the Philippines, so well-oiled and organized it's practically down to a science, thanks to adoptive parents like Thelma (again Cherry Pie, again terrific). Thelma may live in the heart of Manila's slums, but she runs her crowded household with a quiet if quietly chaotic efficiency, and she takes proper care of John-John (Kier Segundo), her adopted son, raising him as if her own.

The film is an admirable exercise in slice-of-life filmmaking; all the minutiae of slum life is captured but rarely to the point of tedium, showing us how the slum dwellers feed, bathe, pass the time; it goes on to show us the various duties of foster mothers, how they are paid, how their umbrella organization is organized (Thelma is like a subcontractor who earns commission for every child she successfully brings in for adoption). The film errs in perhaps only one or two details--a schoolteacher snapping at John-John (who suffers from stage fright during a school theater production)sounds loudly out of place (most Filipino parents would snap back at the teacher's unheard-of rudeness)--but overall the tone is authentic (Thelma puzzling out the mysteries of modern hotel plumbing is surprising and funny and--well, it feels true).

In the end the film becomes some kind of domestic thriller: can Thelma keep her composure, even when about to lose the child she raised for three years? Will she lose her composure--was all that care and loving poured into John-John mere professional childrearing, or does she beneath her serenely maternal demeanor truly care for the boy after all? Mendoza holds his cards close to his chest; you wait with baited breath, wondering when if ever will he (or Thelma) show his (or her) hand.

Tirador (Slingshot, 2007) is arguably Mendoza's attempt at urban noir; more, at that subset of urban noir great Filipino filmmakers can't seem to resist--that is, noir films set in Manila. Lino Brocka did his (Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon, 1975)); so did Ishmael Bernal (City After Dark, 1980) and Celso Ad. Castillo (Burlesk Queen (Burlesque Queen, 1978)). Mario O'Hara did what might be considered a trilogy (Condemned. 1984; Bulaklak sa City Jail (Flowers of the City Jail, 1984); Bagong Hari (The New King, 1986)).

Mendoza also evokes echoes of another subgenre, that of urban youth dramas, and again the roll call is intimidating--Fernando Mereilles and Katie Lund's Cidade de Deus (City of God, 2002); Hector Babenco's Pixote (1981); Luis Bunuel's Los Olvidados (1950); even Vittorio de Sica's Sciuscia (Shoeshine, 1946).

Kudos and due respect to Mendoza for trying to throw his own hat in such a prestigious ring. The results of his attempts are memorable, if somewhat mixed--the Manila slums are introduced early on in an unstoppable police raid, with the city's finest breaking into an endless number of shanties and plywood bedrooms, exposing any number of crimes and sexual acts in progress. Not too crazy about some of the filmmaking--the jump-cuts, the swinging handheld footage (so serene in his earlier films, so violent here), the in-your-face staging.

Mendoza seems to be experimenting in the language of noir, and some of the experiments work (a nicely elliptical interrogation scene involving a police officer and his student suspect), some I feel don't (the aforementioned jump-cuts). He is developing as a filmmaker, however, and one can't begrudge him the freedom to attempt new styles, new subject matter. Easily an important new voice in a remarkably vigorous and varied independent Filipino digital cinema.

No comments: