Brillante Mendoza’s Singular Voice

Filipino director Brillante Mendoza
Courtesy of SGIFF

Prolific, personable and perpetually in motion, multi-faceted Brillante Mendoza has come to symbolize Filipino cinema to the rest of the world. At this week’s Singapore International Film Festival he gets to judge the works of others as head of the competition jury.

Director Brillante Ma. Mendoza is a singular voice in world cinema and the most visible filmmaker from the Philippines to a global audience.

The auteur began his career as a production designer and art director with the on screen credit Dante Mendoza, beginning in 1985 with “Private Show” and “Virgin Forest.” During the next 20 years he worked away from the limelight on several films in this capacity. and with “Gabriela” (1989) he also turned writer.

Mendoza exploded onto the world stage in 2005 with his directorial debut “The Masseur” (“Masahista”.)

The drama that intercuts between the professional life of a masseur who offers happy endings to his male clients and his dealing with his father’s death and funeral won the Golden Leopard at Locarno and a slew of other awards. The film was produced under the aegis of Centerstage Productions, an independent film production outfit that Mendoza founded with the aim of rethinking and rebranding Filipino cinema by producing meaningful and relevant films.

In 2006, Mendoza had two releases – “Summer Heat” (“Kaleldo”,) a drama that follows a woodcarver, and his three daughters, and their relationships with the people close to them over seven summers; and “Manoro,” a documentary about a young woman who attempts to teach her friends and family to read and write, in which Mendoza also handled the cinematography.

Cherry Pie Picache won best actress at the Durban International Film Festival in 2007 for “Kaleldo” and Mendoza won the NETPAC award at the Jeonju Film Festival the same year. At the 2006 edition of the Cinemanila International Film Festival, he picked up a best director prize and the Lino Brocka Award. And at the CinemAvvenire Award at the Torino International Festival of Young Cinema.

2007 was an even more prolific year for Mendoza, with three films. “Pantasya”, an episodic digital feature dealing with gay fantasies of men in uniform; “Foster Child” looked at the state of foster care in the Philippines and was festooned with awards around the world including the NETPAC at Brisbane; and “Slingshot” (“Tirador”,) an exploration of the indigent population in Manila’s Quiapo district that won a plethora of awards including the Caligari Film Award in Berlin in 2008 and the NETPAC and the Silver Screen Awards for best film and director at the Singapore International Film Festival the same year.

By the time Mendoza unleashed “Serbis” (“Service”) on the world in 2008, it was clear that an auteur was at work. The sprawling epic largely set in a dilapidated movie theatre follows the travails of a family as they deal with bigamy, incest and pregnancies, and Cannes duly honoured it by playing it in main competition. Only those not familiar with Mendoza’s work were surprised when the visceral “Kinatay” won the best director at Cannes in 2009. Roger Ebert wasn’t a huge fan of the film, but it moved Quentin Tarantino enough to send Mendoza a handwritten note that began: “Dear Mr. Mendoza, Bravo on your difficult troubling work,” and went on to praise the cinematic decisions that the director took in the film.

Post “Kinatay” Mendoza continued to be as prolific as ever. “Thy Womb” (“Sinapupunan”), a drama about surrogacy won some 20 awards globally, including best actress for Nora Aunor and director for Mendoza at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards.

2015 has been a year of accolades for Mendoza with his latest film “Taklub” (“Trap”), about the aftermath of super-typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban, winning the Ecumenical Jury Prize — Special Mention as part of Un Certain Regard at Cannes; the Sarajevo festival honouring him with a tribute; and the Tokyo International Film Festival showcasing five films directed by him and two produced by him.

“When you work from the heart, it is the kind of film that you make, and how you make the film, and why you make this kind of film. That is the most important thing – why you make this film,” Mendoza said in Tokyo.

“Taklub” screens Dec. 1 at the Singapore International Film Festival with Mendoza in attendance. The screening is preceded by a masterclass with Mendoza.

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