Kinatay (Brillante Mendoza, 2009)
English Title: The Execution of P
The crowning glory of Brillante Mendoza’s Kinatay (The Execution of P) is the ominous van ride that Peping (Coco Martin), a recently-married criminology student, decides to take to earn a few thousands of pesos to jumpstart his family life. The van ride connects dream with nightmare. The dream, lush with colors popping out of the perpetually busy and populated alleyways and public spaces, is shot in film. Night beckons the nightmare, shot in digital video and characterized by an enveloping darkness that gives way to more alert sensibilities to sounds, sights, and feelings. The van ride has Peping in the innermost space of the vehicle cramped by his experienced companions and their hapless victim, a prostitute named Madonna (Maria Isabel Lopez) who could not pay the money she owes the gang’s leader fondly referred to as Kap (Julio Diaz), because he is in fact a captain in the city’s police force. Scant illumination is provided for by the city’s neon lights, the headlights of passing cars, or the scarce street lamps that line the highway leading to Madonna’s execution place. The perspective that Mendoza forces us to take is discomforting, for the reason that cinema thrives with stimuli, and this forced deprivation of light and logic, orchestrated by Mendoza, is suffocating.
The little we know (that there is a victim, there is a destination, and there is an atrocity that we are forced to witness) compromises our perceived humanity. However, the littler we know, the more we understand Peping and his eventual fall from grace. That Madonna is a mother, a breadwinner for her extended family, a few weeks away from amassing the money she owes Kap, are all immaterial information. Nor it is material to know the motivations behind the callous violence that primarily characterize Kap’s set of trusted thugs. It is easier to define them as one end of the moral spectrum, individuals whose experiences in debasing human life has left them to treat it routinely, with every guilt or burden the inflicted atrocity has created momentary eradicated by showering and changing to a fresh set of clothes. With the limited perspective that Mendoza provides his viewers, he was able to enunciate the ramifications of witnessing and taking part in a single act of depravity, how it engulfs us completely and changes us forever.
I understand the hatred for the film (when it premiered in Cannes where notwithstanding Mendoza’s winning the Best Director prize, the film was met with harsh critical receptionc) but I don’t necessarily subscribe to it. In Mendoza’s quest to depict reality, he tramples upon established concepts of what it is to be human. He relentlessly maps the transition of man to monster, and given the straight-line matter-of-factly process that the film explores, the transition is as easy and automatic as night turning into day. Unlike in Mendoza’s other films where poverty is a blatant motivation and a nagging visual motif, in Kinatay, while we know that Peping is poor, poverty remains a subtle omnipresent force. What is explored in the film is not how poverty destroys us, but how humanity is too fragile, that by a mere twist of fate where we succumb to merely surviving notwithstanding the repercussions of our minor and major delinquencies, we are forced to relax it and inevitably decide to lose it.
Manila is a city of blatant ironies. In a city that dazzles with high rise buildings and affluent lights, beggars roam the highways that are motionless with its nightly traffic jams. Atop building are reminders of the persisting Catholicism that characterize the population, but beneath these high and holy signs lit in the brightest of reds to make sure they are seen from the farthest distance are whores, pimps, drug peddlers, addicts, and murderers. The cops are the criminals. Humanity is as pertinent as butchered meat. These are not directorial conceits formed by of Mendoza’s mind, but pieces of realities, strung together in what essentially is a road trip to hell to dictate a choice severed by fear, desperation, the four walls of the van and the kilometers of cold concrete, that are essential in understanding the predicament that plagues Peping. Morality remains a farfetched ideal, plastered in t-shirts and slogans. When push comes to shove, the most human thing to do is to go with the flow and transform.
Mendoza is preoccupied with Martin’s face, devoting a substantial portion of the film staring at it as it transforms from jubilant hopefulness as he waits to be married to Cecille (Mercedes Cabral), the mother of his baby, in a modest but charming civil ceremony, to wretched surrender as he goes home to his family after spending the night taking part in the grisly murder of a woman he barely knew for a couple of thousands of pesos that will presumably feed his family for the next couple of days. It’s a transformation that is too damning to witness because it occupies a much too familiar territory that we are ashamed to admit; that every little infraction scratches our moral stance, which is similar to Peping‘s situation where he essentially does not take part in the actual murder and dismemberment of Madonna, but his inability to shun it, grants him a position of equal culpability in the eyes of our collective morality and in his perception of his own humanity. Mendoza’s appreciation of our corruption may be too simplistic or too outrageous to resist but that he does not shy away from exposing the frailties instead of the triumphs of out universally shared humanity surprisingly makes Kinatay a human and humane film.