Law and Disorder

in 50th Thessaloniki International Film Festival

by Léo Soesanto

“We do not live to think, but, on the contrary, we think in order that we may succeed in surviving” (José Ortega y Gasset).

During the 50th Thessaloniki International Film Festival, the Philippines Rising tribute was suitably located in the Independence Days section – a palette and a mixed bag for everything labelled “indie cinema”, from the “mumblecore” works-in-progress of American director Joe Swanberg to the political kinkiness of Japanese master Koji Wakamatsu.

Thanks to a new generation of filmmakers, the Philippines have been put again on the cinema map after Lino Brocka’s social realist oeuvre won fame in the Seventies. Brocka’s comments on his country still casts a shadow on the current Filipino wave but in a new context: the digital age and its endless possibilities (check the 28 films, according to Imdb, of Khavn de la Cruz, shot between 2002 and 2009), and the French-Filipino co-productions, Brillante Mendoza’s Kinatay and Lola.

But the same sense of freedom catches directors as different as the contemplative Lav Diaz (people stating they saw the entire 8-hour Melancholia are liars or true cinephile heroes of our times) or the playful Raya Martin, who subverts the style of a Thirties Hollywood studio film in Indepedencia – the cinema language of their colonizers, the Americans.

The case of Brillante Mendoza is an interesting one: he is obviously the most prominent director of the Filipino new wave, having been able to slip into the Cannes Festival’s main competition for two consecutive years, with Service (Serbis) in 2008 and Kinatay in 2009. Each time, he was able to provoke controversy, with accusations of self-indulgence in his documentary style (reminiscent of the member of the audience screaming “Narcissism” after the premiere of Fassbinder’s Love is Colder than Death forty years ago) or of “slum-poverty-porn”. Critic Roger Ebert called Kinatay  the “worst film shown this year in Cannes”.

I respectfully disagree. For “slum-poverty-porn”, well, please watch Slumdog Millionaire. I tend to appreciate the way Mendoza brightly captures Manila’s energy, whether he frenzily sticks to characters with his hand-held camera or uses the city’s traffic as a soundtrack. I like the way he blurs facts and fiction to maximum effect to deal with one of the defining traits of the Philippines, surviving, according to an interview he gave in Paris in July 2008. Kinatay and Lola, a “bonus film” sent to the Venice Festival, broods over the topic in very different ways. Double feature shows may be out of date but one is very tempted to put Kinatay  (a thriller) and Lola (a melodrama) on the same bill: which together is like a Filipino take on a Law & Order TV show episode. Crime and (or maybe not) punishment. In Mendoza’s world, surviving costs money and souls.

Kinatay begins rather gently so that the following violence is unleashed unexpectedly. Peping (= Peeping?) is a student in criminology. He is busy this day because of his marriage. He thinks more of money issues than courses and doesn’t react much when his teacher asks: “to consider a crime, should you be better inside and looking outside or outside and looking inside?” This will be his defining issue when he accepts one job: coming with a bunch of crooked policemen in order to punish Madonna, a junkie hooker. She is then kidnapped and put in a van for a long, unnerving journey, shot in muddy darkness. The trip is accompanied by Peping’s worried looks, Madonna’s whimpers and industrial, metallic music. Kinatay (“butchery” in Tagalog, the major language of the Philippines) slowly finds its meaning when Madonna is raped, killed and dismembered.

It is not the mastery with which Mendoza ventures into the horror genre that impresses – while still keeping his trademarks, without falling into the trap of “torture porn”. It is how Kinatay and its darkness fit well into Mendoza’s work, where people are treated equally as (economic) goods whether they are soon-to-be-adopted children (Foster Child/John John) or prostitutes (Service). In Lola, the dead cannot rest in peace with all the monkey business over their bodies. The violence in Kinatay is then logical: buy goods, throw them away. An experiment in terror, the film challenges the audience and its main character about their voyeurism. If a film is (most of the time) a pay-per-view experience, that night to remember for Peping is about paying because he viewed the butchery without doing anything.

Lola deals more with the consequences of a crime in the disguise of a melodrama. Two widowed grandmothers (“lola” in Tagalog), Sepa and Puring, have to face each other. Sepa’s grandson has been presumably killed by Puring’s grandson. The two poor women have to fight and concede at the same time in order to guarantee the best for their grandsons: saving one from jail; and ensuring a decent funeral for the other. The scene where Sepa struggles with her umbrella against the wind sums it all up: the ladies may be aged and frail, but won’t break.

Lola is a more enjoyable experience than Kinatay thanks to its wonderful lead actresses (Anita Linda as the dignified Sepa, Rustica Carpio as the gently deceitful Puring) and beautiful scenes such as the funeral procession on the river. But both films should be considered as a two-part study on justice in the Philippines: more interesting than the corrupted police in Kinatay  is the bureaucracy in Lola, which tries to settle murder cases as if they were horse-trading. In contrast, vigilante-style justice from the crowd beating up a pickpocket is equally chilling. At the end, whether justice is done or not in Kinatay and Lola, there is no sense of relief in any case. It is law and disorder.

When the two “lolas” negotiate, it is not at court but in a food court at a mall. The women’s conversation quickly switches to personal matters such as health or food as if they wanted to get rid of painful notions of equity and retribution. This is the sad beauty of Lola.

Edited by Ronald Bergan