Acolytes convinced Brillante Mendoza is ready for his second Cannes competish slot will dwindle following “Kinatay,” an unpleasant journey into a brutal heart of darkness. Mendoza strengthens his gift for describing space with inquisitive cameras, but as the helmer’s star rises, his subtlety wanes, resulting in obvious statements made banal by heavy-handed ironies. This noirish tale of an innocent guy drawn into a dark world of torture and dismemberment understands that an unwilling accomplice is still tarred by fate, but the pic’s graphic nature does realism no favors. Fest life may linger, but theatrical won’t survive long.
Exec producer Didier Costet is well aware of the risks; his distrib company Equation has already released three Mendoza titles in France, including last year’s controversial Cannes entry “Serbis,” which he co-produced under Swift Prods. “Kinatay” is Tagalog for “slaughter,” which could be a prescient title given the likely drubbing the pic will receive from mainstream critics.
The first 15 minutes or so showcase what Mendoza does best: capturing the chaos of life in the teeming slums and streets of Manila. Accompanied by a cacophony of noises and voices, police cadet Pepoy (Mendoza’s muse Coco Martin, also credited as producer under his real name, Rodel Nacianceno) and his g.f. Cecille (Mercedes Cabral) drop their baby off with an “auntie” and head to city hall to get married. Money is scarce, but their happiness is palpable, and everyone in the wedding party optimistically dreams of purchasing big-ticket items.
The next day, Pepoy hooks up with friend Abyong (Jhong Hilario), who promises him a nice chunk of change if he joins some shady cohorts for an unspecified job. Accepting the offer, Pepoy watches as Sarge (John Regala) lures deadbeat drug addict/prostitute Gina, aka Madonna (Maria Isabel Lopez), into a van, where the thugs pummel the helpless woman on the orders of Vic (Julio Diaz).
A long nighttime ride follows, as the van departs Manila, with a terrified Gina watched in the back by a silent, frightened Pepoy. Mendoza shoots much of the ride inside the darkened van, its indistinct, menacing forms accompanied by strange soundscapes meant to invoke viewer anxiety.
On reaching their destination, Gina is brought to a room where she’s beaten, raped and finally dismembered. Unfortunately, the graphic nature of the presentation is so coldly matter-of-fact and overtly in-your-face that auds are unlikely to feel anything other than anger at being subjected to such unnecessary scenes. It’s not that the helmer takes any glee in the sadism, but the nightmarish quality he captures is merely vile, without a deeper sense of the scene’s horror.
Thus, Mendoza’s stated aim, to show how one misstep can turn a basically decent guy into a scarred and culpable soul, becomes a pseudo-noir treatment in which the brutality, alternately coy and explicit, overshadows the soul-searching. Worse, the helmer insists, as he did in “Serbis,” on hitting auds over the head with unsubtle ironies, such as a poster of Jesus hanging near Gina’s torture room.
On a purely technical level “Kinatay” impresses, especially in the first quarter. D.p. Odyssey Flores shoots each scene from a variety of angles, as if the camera itself had an urgent need to understand where characters are in space and in relation to their surroundings. Early scenes were shot on film and have a bright, colorful glow — Mendoza gets the joyful anticipation of the wedding day absolutely right — while the endless night sequences, deliberately murky and ashen, were lensed digitally with the versatile Arriflex D-21.