Domestic violence and black comedy don’t seem a natural match, but to an impressive degree “Bitter Melon” pulls off their shotgun marriage. This third and best directorial feature to date for H.P. Mendoza, best known for writing, composing and starring in 2006’s “Colma: The Musical” (which Richard Wong directed), revolves around an eventful long Christmas weekend for members of a Filipino-American family with a history of abusive fathers. The complex tonal, textural and thematic mix here doesn’t always work, but it’s always interesting and often invigorating.
Christmas in San Francisco may not require winter wear, but there’s a certain amount of frost in the air as the Santos clan convenes for a rare (and nearly full) family reunion. Gay youngest son Declan (Jon Norman Schneider) has flown in from Manhattan, with eldest Moe (Brian Rivera) from Philadelphia, both returning for for the first time in years. Neither has brought a partner along — though Moe actually has one, Julie (Safiya Fredericks), who’s pregnant, but he’s wary to introduce his culturally conservative relatives to his African-American wife. Another person who will not be participating in the festivities is father Rogelio (Vint Carmona), a drunken batterer whose whereabouts no one has known for years.
Removing that historic cause of pain and strife from the equation should make for a hassle-free holiday. But there’s still someone to tiptoe around: Middle brother Troy (Patrick Epino), a ne’er-do-well who terrorized his siblings growing up, and now does the same with long-suffering wife Shelly (Theresa Navarro) and teenage daughter Mina (Amelie Anima). Because Troy is unemployed, they’re back living in the family home with matriarch Prisa (Josephine de Jesus). Having been battered herself for years, she ought to be her daughter-in-law and grandchild’s staunchest defender. Unfortunately, she bows to tradition in perpetually excusing her son for his latest violent outburst, urging Shelly to forgive him in the vain hope that Troy will magically change ways.
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Despite this bleak central conceit, “Bitter Melon” is, for quite a while, boisterous and funny, its principal characters sharing a bemusedly sarcastic rapport bourne of coping with their rough upbringing. Joined by cousin Tiva (L.A. Renigen of “Colma”), Dec and Moe quickly fall into the old dynamics, many of them escapist. But when on Christmas night Moe slips off to carouse with some old friends while Dec connects with an old boyfriend, the spurned middle bro stays at home, fuming. His mood isn’t improved by the discovery that Tiva has urged Shelly to consult an agency for victims of domestic violence.
The point at which the realization dawns that “Troy makes everyone’s life worse” doesn’t become a truly serious matter until about an hour into the film. To that point, “Melon” has juggled a lot of tonal, plot and character elements with aplomb — Mendoza’s screenplay achieving a kind of high-fiber, low-fat emotional shorthand furthered by energetic input from Juli Lopez’s widescreen lensing and Sylvia Fernandez’s editing. There’s a very fresh feel to much of the early going, which neatly sidesteps the potential for rote home-for-the-holidays dramedy.
But once Troy’s abuse must be confronted head-on, the semi-farcical conception of his personality (he has delusions of nearly having joined a famous boy band, despite having no singing ability) becomes more of a problem. Epino’s comic chops undercut the character’s inherent threat, which provides the core conflict here. To wrestle with its intergenerational demons, the film slows down, using one-on-one dialogues that aren’t terribly long or verbose by normal standards, but nonetheless feel stagy after the very cinematic prior progress. By the time fratricide is raised as one drastic possible solution, we’re not quite sure how seriously to take this movie, or indeed how seriously it’s taking itself.
Mendoza regains surer footing with a late reversion to the vibrancy of the early scenes, also throwing in a couple of twists that aren’t entirely credible, but which make “Melon” again seem cleverly unpredictable. The film feels packed with ideas — maybe too packed — and one suspects that its very personal nature and extremely long period of gestation (the screenplay has been worked on since 1997) ultimately overloaded the agenda a bit. Maybe this combination of hip, flip character comedy and dead-sober themes was always going to be a little wobbly. Nevertheless, there’s an assertive authorial voice and panache of execution that makes “Bitter Melon” worth rooting for even when it falls short of its own ambitions.
The cast is sharp down to the various small parts, with some generous writing for particular talents. There’s an especially fine scene in which Rivera’s 10-years-sober Moe reunites with Lisa (Anna Ishida, the lead in Mendoza’s supernatural objet d’art “I Am a Ghost”), who’s still stuck being “one of the boys” in a nonstop party scene she’s resigned to never leave.
Among various alert creative contributions, a particularly savvy one is the original score by the director and Marco D’Ambrosio, whose string-quartet sound adds underpinnings of plaintive tension. “Colma: The Musical” fans will have to settle for a couple of indie pop tunes by Mendoza that are relegated to background music. Set in Mendoza’s native, working-class Excelsior district, “Bitter Melon” also has the advantage of showing a San Francisco not on tourist maps.