KINATAY and Filipino Pride

A few days ago, I was reading Roger Ebert’s blog about ‘Kinatay”, a Filipino film which competed at this year’s prestigious Cannes film festival. He mentioned the film was unwatchable, so much so that he apologized for calling Vincent Gallo’s “The Brown Bunny” the worst film in the festival’s history.

It’s not just Roger who dislikes the movie. Several prominent critics from the Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, and Variety have noted how bad they felt the movie is. Of course everyone has their own opinion on what makes a film good or bad, but what is truly worrying about the the movie is how it was jeered at its reception and eventual awarding (more on that later).

Boos–a different sort; what you might call a consensus boo, without any lines of defense to make things interesting–filled the air the night before following Philippine director Brillante Mendoza’s grim slog “Kinatay” – Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

Sure enough, when the credits rolled, a wan, smattering of applause met a not-insignificant round of boos. Booing — real booing (especially of something that can’t hear it) — is uncomfortable because I always expect it to lead to something worse, as though a chorus of boos leads straight to riots in the streets. I left before the credits ended. So who knows, maybe the red carpet is on fire as I type. – Wesley Morris, Boston Globe

“Kinatay,” a Filipino low-budgeter with a centerpiece scene devoted to the butchery of a woman, may have enthused some of director Brillante Mendoza’s hardcore fans but appalled most others; surely Un Certain Regard would have provided a more appropriate home for this than did the competition. – Todd McCarthy, Variety

Mr. Mendoza, a rising talent who was at Cannes last year with the rowdy “Serbis,” could use all the help he could get with this movie. A morality tale that he wields like a blunt instrument, “Kinatay” hinges on the inaction of a police-academy student while a prostitute is murdered and dismembered. The movie had its respectful fans, but many others fled the theater. – Manola Dargis, New York Times

With all of the bad feedback, I apologized to Roger as a Filipino and film critic for the film. I felt embarrassed as a movie lover, seeing a compatriot’s film panned and booed.

And that’s when, go figure, I got called out for being a disgrace to my country.

Several commenters derided me for lacking pride in the film, our country, asking my why I had the nerve to apologize for a film which I had nothing to do with. I asked for civility, but several Filipinos piled on criticizing Roger for being anti-Filipino and for the apologizers for their “treachery.”

Then Brillante Mendoza won the festival’s best director award, whose announcement was just as shocking, if not more, as his film’s reception.

Those awards were perhaps not expected, but were well-received. Then the jury started springing surprises that didn’t go over as well.

The biggest was the Best Director Award to Brillante Mendoza of the Philippines, for the very violent “Kinatay,” one of the worst-received films of the festival. It involves the kidnapping, torture, rape, beheading and dismemberment of woman by members of the police force.

The announcement was greeted by loud booing as the festival’s press corps watched on closed circuit TV in the Debussy theater, next door to the Lumiere, where the ceremony was held. – Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

… when Filipino filmmaker Brillante Mendoza won the directing prize for “Kinatay,” in which a police academy student witnesses a series of depraved acts committed against an exotic dancer, the hoots from the press corps reached a crescendo. Accepting his award, Mendoza seemed as surprised as anyone that Huppert’s jury recognized, as he termed it, “my kind of cinema.” – Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

The biggest shock of the night was the Best Director award, which went to the Filipino Brillante Mendoza for his grisly kidnap film Kinatay, one of the most reviled films in the competition. – Ben Hoyle, Times of London

This may all seem like a criticism of Brillante Mendoza and his work, but it’s far from it. I’m happy that he’s been rewarded for his hard work. His craftsmanship is well above that of his peers in the Philippine entertainment industry, and he strives to make films that are important to him and not to commercial interests.

However, do not mistake how I feel about his efforts with how I feel about the film, which is at the moment, leaning towards shame. It’s true that I have not seen the film, and therefore have no final opinion of it. But when the most recognized film critic in the world says that a movie is the worst in the history of Cannes, you have to take notice.

I have listened to Roger Ebert for almost half my life now, and for people to call him racist and populist is to show ignorance or jealousy. No man in the last in the past several decades has done more to illuminate films of every kind, regardless of who their from, where they’re made, or what they intend to do. Sure he operates in the mainstream, but when you actually read his reviews, very few can match his intelligence.

As for me, I reserve the right to say sorry for a film, if others reserve the right to feel pride in it. Now that Mr. Mendoza has won, those same accusers who are so outraged by us apologists now feel immense national pride. How dare they? Did they have anything to do with it?

When “Slumdog Millionaire” won the Best Film Oscar, many Indians felt that same fervor of pride or anger. Some didn’t like the references to dogs, some were elated at an India-focused movie receiving film’s highest honor. Don’t think for a moment that if a Filipino did the same, we Pinoys would be losing our minds.

Is that a bad thing? To apologize or feel pride in a film we have no hand in making? Of course not. For movie lovers, we have much at stake, whatever those investments are. If you’re happy with Brillante Mendoza’s win for his work with “Kinatay,” then more power to you. An award at Cannes for all its criticisms is still a valued prize. Personally, I don’t feel pride in a film that has caused so much revulsion among audiences.

But who knows? That might change once I’ve actually seen it.