Kinatay

by Guest Contributor Tanglad, originally published at Tanglad

Let me get this out of the way first. This is not a movie review. It is a review of movie reviews about Brillante Mendoza’s Kinatay. Spoilers follow, though the title pretty much tells you what you’re gonna get.

Last weekend, Filipino director Brillante Mendoza won the best director award at the Cannes Festival for the movie Kinatay (”Slaughtered“). Mendoza’s win was a surprise, considering how Kinatay is probably, as Prometheus Brown puts it, the most hated film at Cannes.

Exerpts from Maggie Lee’s synopsis and review at The Hollywood Reporter:

Newly married Peping, who attends the police academy, receives an offer via text message to make a fast buck with a shady friend. By nightfall, he is in a van with a group of vicious gangsters who have kidnapped a bar hostess to demand a loan repayment under orders from an elusive general…

The real time pacing, feels like being stuck in a traffic jam, but the dramatic thrust is relentless as one hears through the muffled darkness, the woman being gagged and beaten mercilessly. The horror escalates to rape, murder and dismemberment. None of this is left to the imagination, with the men’s verbal sexism being equally distasteful.

That was a positive review. (See here to view Kinatay excerpts, and here for a round-up of reviews and more background on the film.)

Roger Ebert’s review, charmingly titled “What were they thinking of?”, is typical of how critics who hated Kinatay approached the movie. There is hardly any discussion of the merits of the movie itself, and instead a whole lot of indignation over the unpleasantness that viewers were subjected to:

It is Mendoza’s conceit that it his Idea will make a statement, or evoke a sensation, or demonstrate something–if only he makes the rest of the film as unpleasant to the eyes, the ears, the mind and the story itself as possible…

No drama is developed. No story purpose is revealed…

Ebert adds that:

the sad thing is, the opening scenes in his film give promise of being absorbing and even entertaining.

How dare a film expose its audience to a woman’s violent murder and dismemberment? A form of violence against women that, by the way, happens not infrequently in the Philippines?

And how dare the film depict this violence in a way that is unpleasant, rather than entertaining?

I wonder what “story purpose” would Ebert have found acceptable. It’s quite telling that he ends his review with a plug for the movie Precious, which in other accounts is a story of an illiterate teen’s suffering through horrific sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. In Ebert’s summary, however, Precious is

the story of a physically and mentally abused poor black girl from the ghetto, who summons the inner strength to fight back for her future.

Precious is a trope of triumph via individual hard work and determination (at least according to Ebert), whereas Kinatay depicts a violence that is banal, wherein police officers rape and dismember a woman at the behest of a crime lord. Like Peping, the audience is forced to witness the woman’s murder, and is forced to deal with their silence and complicity in her killing. How unpleasant that must have been.

The problem then is not so much the violence of Kinatay, but how it was depicted, as Ebert states in a response to a commenter:

What is important is not whether it protrays reality in the Philippines, but how it does so. My comments were more about the style than the content.

Commenter Marie Haws agrees:

it’s not because “Kinatay” fails to accurately portray a level of violence to found in your country, it’s not because it misrepresents corruption or fails to show the underlying patriarchal nature of it – but rather, that you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar…You can use a hammer to drive a point home, or you can use a heart.

Oh look, they’re making the tone argument.

Haws goes on to contrast Kinatay with The Killing Fields. I guess that like Precious, The Killing Fields‘ cinematic depictions of the Khmer Rouge genocide is mediated and made palatable by the triumph of the human spirit and democratic values.

How about a more recent and more well-received depiction of violence and poverty from the Third World? There’s that outhouse scene from Slumdog Millionaire, where the little boy literally dives into shit to get a movie star’s autograph.

Never mind that even in the most squalid slums, residents take efforts to maintain personal hygiene and cleanliness. The scene negates that humanity, and is instead played for laughs. Because the boy is eventually set-up to triumphantly get out of the slums through his sheer determination, the violence and poverty in this very shitty scene is made palatable and acceptable. Almost a pleasant experience.

Those who strive to communicate Third World truths via art are called to do so in specific ways — to entertain, to valorize ideals like determination, hard work, individualism. The merits of Kinatay aside, I’m glad that there are artists like Brillante Mendoza, who refuse the ways we are called and choose to respond on their own terms.