Sunday, May 15, 2011
Kinatay (Brillante Mendoza, 2009) (revised 5.15.11)
Finally got to see Brillante Mendoza's Kinatay (The Execution of P, 2009). Apologize for the two-year delay; I can only say said delay was partly due to life getting in the way, partly due to technical difficulties...
Finally got to see the film, finally can directly respond to Roger Ebert's plaintive declaration that this is "the worst film in the history of the Cannes Film Festival" by saying: Mr. Ebert--grow up. Grow up. You're a veteran critic, you've seen stronger, stranger stuff, you can take and appreciate this like the big boy you are. In his article's comment section someone mentions Gaspar Noe's Irreversible (2002), to which Ebert promptly responds by tacking a link to his review of that movie. To which I reply: there, see? You can take that load of crap in stride, you can take Brillante's film in stride. Both feature a sexual assault and a killing, both are described in your own words as "unbearable;" what makes one deserving of three stars and another the status of "worst film in the history of the Cannes Film Festival?" Is it because Bellucci's rape occurs in the far prettier streets of Paris and not in some grimy police safehouse? Is it because Bellucci is younger, dressed and made up better? Or is it because Mendoza is guilty of seizing on an idee fixe and pursuing it come what may (a character trait that come to think of it any worthwhile artist, Gaspar Noe included, would possess in considerable amounts?)?
Is it the story structure? Does telling the story backwards makes the rape and murder acceptable in Irreversible where telling it in real time does not in Kinatay? Does he not consider Noe's structuring device a cheap gimmick (without which the picture is just another rape-and-revenge flick) while Mendoza's strategy for immersing the audience in the film's unspoken themes and sensibility somehow is?
Is it perhaps the lighting--the fact that Noe's is professionally done, with Bellucci being slowly and thoroughly sodomized a mere five or so feet from the camera for the viewer's leisurely delectation while much of Kinatay is practically in the dark, with most of what happens obscured and barely comprehensible (as it might be when seen--and this is just possibly Mendoza's point--through the protagonist's eyes)? Is it the apparent professionalism or lack thereof of the respective filmmakers that is at issue here? Is Mendoza guilty of not having raised enough money so that the terrible events in his films lack the sheen and gloss of a European art film--is that Ebert's problem?
(Might as well note here that if Mendoza doesn't seem to have the time or money to properly light his sets (and I don't believe that for a second), he does seem to have spent sufficient effort on the sound design which, I think, is brilliant--by turns subversive and subterranean and wholly unsettling, sometimes all three at once ("you can't bear to listen to it," Ebert declares, and for once I agree with him).)
I think Ebert needs to clarify his huffy indignation, and just what distinguishes Mendoza's travesty from Noe's masterpiece, other than that Mendoza and scriptwriter Armando Lao appear to have researched their subject matter and taken details from actual 'salvagings' (the Filipino word for military and police executions, taken from the quaint idea that they are 'salvaging' the wrongdoer's soul), while Noe seems to be mostly exercising his masturbatory misogynist fantasies. Is it possible that one is so successful at persuading him of the reality of its premise that he comes out not just moved and depressed but actively resentful--and he can't forgive the filmmaker for doing so? Is that it?
Moving on. The film doesn't focus on Madonna (Maria Isabel Lopez, in a harrowing performance) and her brief if intense period of suffering; it doesn't provide her strong motivation or even a clear set of circumstances (though if you listen carefully you'll suss out that she owes money to and has angered 'Kap' (a police captain, played by Julio Diaz), and that he's ordered her execution) because it isn't her story, it's Peping's (Coco Martin). That's the young police cadet who runs errands for his teachers and superiors by collecting extortion money (actually he collects from the local collector, who does the actual work), and who, again to please his teachers and superiors, agrees to earn a little extra money (two thousand pesos, or roughly a little over forty dollars) by tagging along on an unspecified assignment.
The film's emotional heart lies in the changes rung on Peping's face, from his carefree morning (he'd just married Cecille (Mercedes Cabral) in a lovely little civil ceremony) to his bored wait in the nightclub's parking lot, to his dawning realization that they're out on a snatch-n-salvage mission, where the person involved is a nightclub dancer and prostitute. It's a gradual process that mirrors within the length of the picture our own reactions--how we hear faint rumors of vigilante executions; how these stories are repeated, with more detail and perhaps a more authoritative voice; how suspicions gave way to dismayed certainty; and how, after the epiphany, comes the knottiest question of all: what are you going to do about it? Perhaps some of the tensest moments in the film involve the choices Peping has to make--should he walk away, should he try help her, should he stay for the ride? What do his decisions at these various points say about him as a human being--and us, since we are implicated by viewing the story through his eyes and ears? Even more than the possibility of the girl's survival (the film's title and details handed out by the film's canny publicity campaign (say, could all the negative reviews including Ebert's have been planted?) pretty much rule that out) we hope for some sign of resistance from Peping--an attempt to help the girl, comfort her somehow, some recognition on his part that she is a human being, a mother in fact, and that what is about to happen to her is monstrous beyond words.
Speaking of monsters--the police officers are not presented as complex characters capable of change; instead, they are presented the way they are: weary and so desensitized by this job they need to buy beer and boiled duck eggs along the way to keep themselves entertained (a horrifying detail, I thought, that sets this particular vigilante execution apart from those set in, say, Mexico). If we are to find their closest cinematic equivalent we'll find them not in the films of Fernando Meirelles but in those of Michael Mann--lonely professionals toiling away at demanding work, perhaps not as supercompetent, but certainly as burnt-out and inexpressive and tired. Mendoza may have made Peping the film's heart, but its soul definitely takes cue from the police officers, from their crude, off-the-cuff way of handling things, even emergencies.
I do have reservations: Mendoza for most of the picture does an excellent job of making us see through Peping's eyes and ears; why interrupt this tactic during the sexual assault? He could probably come up with half a dozen reasons why Peping should tag along and get a glimpse; otherwise the shots of oral rape tend to look opportunistic--exploitative, even. Earlier, Mendoza has Peping sit in the nightclub parking lot while the camera walks inside with the police officers, the better to take in the gyrating nude bodies--why show them? For entertainment value? Prurient interests?
Otherwise--one of Mendoza's best works, in my book superior to his Tirador (Slingshot, 2007) where society's underbelly is also exposed, but the real star of that show was Mendoza's collection of noir cliches: the jump cut, the shaky-cam. If I prefer his Manoro (Teacher, 2006) and Foster Child (2007) to this that's because I feel they're more expressive films, with more to say about Philippine society in general. That may be the most substantial complaint I have against Kinatay--that it's an example of a strictly limited genre (portrait of the world's sordid underbelly), but expresses the themes of that genre with unparalleled force.
(With thanks to my old friend Stanley Chua-unsu for his help and support)