Brillante Mendoza accomplished what seasoned filmmakers and celebrated auteurs can only dream of. He competed in the most prestigious film festival in the world for two consecutive years: a feat not even the late Lino Brocka was able to achieve. The nine-member jury of the 2009 Cannes Film Festival honored the Filipino director with the Best Director award (French: Prix de la mise en scène) for his graphic and disconcerting depiction of moral decay in Kinatay.
This film is a slice-of-life drama that chronicles a man's descent to the heart of evil. During the daytime sequences, Direk Dante explores the hustle and bustle of Manila's city life: noisy and overcrowded yet cheerful and hopeful.
We are introduced to the film's protagonist, Peping (Coco Martin). We see the events transpire before him. He drops off his seven month old baby and ties the knot with his young fiancée (Mercedes Cabral). The next morning, he attends class in a police academy. Despite being poor and the tough times ahead, a bright future smiles on this young man. There is hope...or so it seems.
As darkness creeps in, Direk Dante drops the curtains to reveal a portrait of the teeming and frenetic slums. We see Peping help his acquaintance, Abyong (Jhong Hilario,) in collecting what seems like ‘kotong' money from the street vendors of Quiapo. He is then invited to join an unnamed operation that promises a higher pay. Together with a bunch of hooligans, they pick up an aging prostitute named Madonna (Maria Isabel Lopez). She is gagged and pummeled to the floor by Sarge (John Regala) the moment she boarded the van. Apparently, Madonna owes Vic (Julio Diaz) a huge sum of money. Sarge and Vic are both policemen who get their hands dirty in the drug trade.
What follows is a prolonged nighttime drive. Inside the cramped van, Peping watches in awe as the helpless hooker gets beaten to a pulp. Since the van sequences are shot in real time, we start to feel discomfort and anxiety as we bear witness to such gruesome violence. We hear Madonna's muffled cries slowly drowning in the soundscape of the busy city.
And then we reach the destination, a secluded safe house in Bulacan. Madonna is taken to the basement of the house where she is beaten, humiliated, raped, slain, and eventually hacked to pieces using blunt kitchen tools. Direk Dante's strategic interplay of darkness and flickers of light amplifies the horror. We hear Madonna wailing and pleading for her life, followed by the sound of body parts cracking. Although the merciless deeds of the cold-blooded murderers are shrouded in the shadow, we are left to imagine scenarios that are far more terrifying. We recoil at the harrowing denunciation of sadism. We want to get out but like Peping, we are trapped.
But is Peping really trapped? Despite his unwillingness to take an active part in the crime, he could have run away. He could have reach the gun in his back pocket and kill everyone. But why would he do that? Madonna is a washed-up drug addict and prostitute. Is she worth the trouble?
Kinatay treads the path of grayscale morality. And so, Direk Dante challenges our conscience and asks difficult questions. If you were Peping, what could you have done? At a time when horrendous crimes are staples in the news, the corruption of people's mores is like a plague that offers a future of no redemption.
Kinatay is a difficult film to watch not only because of the despicable subject matter but also because of the torturous signature style of Direk Dante: t unsteady camerawork, the foreboding darkness, and the occasional lull. But this film is not just a film, but an experience in itself. He invites us to walk in his character's shoes, face the horror, and make some incredibly tough choices. That makes Kinatay exceptional. It is an effective thriller that not only portrays societal realities, but imparts an unforgettable experience that will haunt you like a nightmare you can't wake up from.
Brillante Mendoza's film has been rated R18, without cuts, by the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board.
Kinatay will soon have a screening in the University of the Philippines Film Institute in Diliman, Quezon City and Robinsons Movieworld.