In his 2008 film Serbis, Brillante Mendoza used a dilapidated Filipino porn theater, given more or less to open prostitution, to comment on the commodification of the sexual act—not to mention the free market in general. As horny patrons exchanged pesos for blowjobs in the lobby, the extended family that ran (and lived in) the movie house toiled behind the scenes to maintain a dying operation. Deglamorizing intercourse, linking one form of economic debasement with another, intermingling public and private spheres to the point of indistinguishably, Serbis nonetheless offered a certain raucous pleasure in its creation of a vivid self-contained world overflowing with fevered—and not always distasteful—activity.
Kinatay, Mendoza’s 2009 follow up, offers little of the same explicit pleasure—either to its audience or its characters. Taking the earlier film’s sexual commodification to its logical, sickening endpoint, combining its critique with a Christian-inflected morality play, Kinatay is both more pointlessly grotesque and more fatuous than Serbis—if no less exquisitely designed. Making superb use of Odyssey Flores’s incredibly turbulent handheld camera (the cinematographer is fast becoming one of the director’s indispensible collaborators) and an aggressive sound design that amplifies the cacophony of street noise, Kinatay establishes its Manila setting—through an opening street montage—as a locus of vaguely sinister activity. While a relentless flow of traffic zips by, obscuring the screen’s foreground, Flores’s depth-collapsing lenses pick out a man taunting a rooster and a butcher chopping up a dead chicken.
Scanning the crowd, the camera settles on a young couple, 20-year-old Peping (Coco Martin) and 19-year-old Cecille (Mercedes Cabral), following the two as they drop their infant child off at an aunt’s, board a bus, and head to city hall to get married. Mendoza keeps his focus fixed on the pair, but occasionally the camera lags behind, taking in little side bits of business. En route to their destination, Peping and Cecille pass a young man threatening to jump from atop a dilapidated billboard; as he’s framed against a faded corporate logo, the man’s plight suggests a palpable economic discontent.
This discontent seems to be shared by nearly everyone in the film—but it’s especially the province of the lead character. Studying to be a police officer, Peping understands the need for a supplemental income, since, as he’s told later in no uncertain terms, “if you rely on your salary, you’ll never make it.” Following the wedding, in which his role as a Christian is emphasized, and a buffet luncheon with his family, where one young relative raises the all important question of payment, Peping joins a friend for a bit of decidedly shady business. Hustled into a car with a group of middle-aged men, he embarks on a mysterious “operation,” which consists of kidnapping a prostitute from the strip club where she works, beating and gagging her, and driving out into the country to a secluded hideout.
In its masterful impressionism and indelible evocation of impending dread, the extended car ride sequence represents the dizzying peak of Mendoza’s filmmaking. Alternating between shots of an increasingly apprehensive Peping, glancing at his wedding ring and cellphone as desperate repositories of moral stability, and the shimmering nightscape as viewed through the car windows (billboards extolling Christ along with consumer products, the neon burst of shady nightspots, the blur of police sirens), the director ties the scene’s palpable sense of imminent reckoning to the ethical uncertainty of its hitherto untainted protagonist. As the car ride continues and sinister electronic drones mix into the ambient noises on the soundtrack (Peping’s impression of being unmoored further reinforced by the director’s use of available light which leaves the other figures in the car as ominous outlines), the film achieves an impossibly sustained mood of guilty apprehension.
It’s when they get to the country hideout that the fun begins—at least depending on your definition of fun. In the film’s infamous central sequence, the men deposit their prey on a bed in the basement and before long ritual debasement and rape give way to dismemberment and murder. As passive observer (and viewer surrogate) Peping looks on in horror, the men ridicule the aging prostitute, who allegedly owes them drug money, charging her with being a used up piece of meat. No longer good for sex, her sole commodity, she’s fit only to be (literally) hacked up into pieces—like the chicken in the opening sequence and like a piece of pork in the penultimate scene to which Mendoza cuts away in a giddy display of parallelism—and dumped at various sites around the countryside. Wisely treating the most gruesome bits with a cautious obliquity designed to avoid Eli Roth-style titillation, Mendoza nonetheless seems to take a perverse delight in his presentation of the woman’s debasement. The question is whether the sequence’s thematic and political resonance—its jaundiced consideration of the lower ends of the economic food chain—is enough to justify putting the audience through its potentially superfluous paces.
It’s certainly not enough to carry the tepid moral inquiry that Mendoza attaches to his central character. In the final sequences, repeated glimpses of Peping’s troubled face alternate with bits of Christian iconography (a prominently placed poster of Jesus that represents the hideout’s sole effort at decoration, the fact that the prostitute’s nickname is Madonna), but no matter how many times the director emphasizes the protagonist as the sequence’s troubled moral center, the question of his ethical orientation always registers as subservient to the horrors being perpetrated in the basement. If Peping often seems on the verge of taking action, he proves just as big a moral weakling as everyone else, and if Mendoza seems intent on grounding his bleak vision in a Christian framework, it’s only to heighten the chilly falling away from any ethnical center. A technical wonder and jarring comment on (very) late capitalist society, Kinatay can’t quite triumph over its partially realized ambitions—though viewers with a taste for lurid spectacle may be better equipped to deal with its grisly second act than those who share Peping’s understandable squeamishness.
Kinatay will play on February 26 and 28 as part of this year’s Film Comment Selects series. To purchase tickets, click here.