Manny Pacquiao wins the title of World Light Welterweight Champion and is selected by Time Magazine as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the world. Kalamansi, a small, tart, lime-lemon-orange-type fruit indigenous to the Philippines and a staple of Filipino food and drink has started it’s ascent as one of this year’s fine dining ingredients du jour – Chef Curtis Duffy at the Peninsula Hotel Chicago’s five-star Avenues restaurant pairs it with king crab and steelhead roe and sends foodies into paroxysms of ecstasy. Then, on Sunday, at the closing ceremonies of the Cannes Film Festival, arguably the most important cinema event in the world, Brillante Mendoza cemented his growing reputation as one of the future bright lights of world cinema by winning Best Director at the Festival for another divisive film, Kinatay (The Execution of P), his second time out at the Main Competition, beating out heavyweights such as Quentin Tarantino, Ang Lee, Pedro Almodovar, Alain Resnais, Jane Campion, and Lars von Trier, in a dream-team competition slate that film pundits had dubbed the auteur’s festival. So is everything Filipino the new black??? Seriously though I am very very proud of Mendoza’s win, the first for a Filipino director, despite the fact that the most internationally-renowned Filipino director of all time, the late Lino Brocka, also competed for the Palme D’Or twice in the 1980s (for Jaguar and Bayan Ko). From all accounts, Mendoza’s win was the one that caught everyone by surprise (and was allegedly booed by some attendees at the closing ceremony), since Kinatay, an unflinchingly violent tale about the abduction, rape, murder, and dismemberment of a prostitute by a gang of corrupt Manila policemen had been universally reviled at the Festival. Roger Ebert called it the “worst film ever shown at the Cannes Film Festival”, even worse than The Brown Bunny, which he had previously, and famously, pronounced as the worst ever, causing the notorious media war with it’s director Vincent Gallo. Variety called it “unpleasant” and “banal”. I remember seeing Mendoza back in 2005 at the Chicago International Film Festival, nervously and inarticulately leading a talkback after the screening of one of his first features, The Masseur, which I found then (and still do) to be derivative and exploitative. He has made quite a name for himself since then, though, winning major festival acclaim in Cannes and Toronto for his subsequent features, Tirador (SlingShot) and Foster Child. Last year’s Cannes main competition entry Serbis, a jawdroppingly outrageous story of a family running a theater which functioned as a meeting place for underage male hustlers and their gay johns, complete with explicit gay and straight sex, a boil on a lead character’s ass being popped in extreme close-up, and a goat chase through the theater, equally repulsed and delighted cineastes. I personally really, really liked it, and found it to be a mature, socially-conscious, intricately-structured work. I can’t wait to see Kinatay, which, with it’s Cannes win, will probably be highly visible this year in the film festival circuit and in art film theaters across the country, and really, why should I give a rat’s ass to what Roger Ebert thinks, right? But, more importantly, as a Filipino and an arts and culture lover, I really would like to celebrate Brillante Mendoza – he has loudly and deservedly claimed his own exalted place in contemporary world cinema, but he has also, almost single-handedly, demonstrated the talent, imagination, sophisticated vision that Filipino artists have, and has made the world sit up and take notice of the Philippines once again. The country has an abundance of talent and a rich history of artistic innovation, sometimes overlooked by a world which has devoted its Philippine-related headlines only to failed coup d’ etats, Imelda Marcos histrionics, or governmental graft and corruption. It’s about time to change all of that. Here’s a list of 2009 Cannes Film Festival winner, led by the Palme D’Or for Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon. Photo: Oh my, Mendoza receiving his prize from Terry Gilliam! Faint and fall with a thud.
I had really low expectations for Serbis, Filipino director Brillante Mendoza’s film about a day in the life of a family who both run and live in a decrepit theater which is also a hotbed of gay male prostitution, set in the city of Angeles (where the US military bases used to be located), right outside Manila. It was shown at the Chicago International Film Festival over the weekend. First, the reports and reviews from Cannes, where it was part of the Main Competition, the first Filipino film to be invited in 25 years, were disheartening – it was a highly divisive movie that received both ecstatic acclaim (including raves from Jury President Sean Penn) and withering, verging on the disgusted, negative notices (and quite a number of walkouts during its festival screening). Second, I’m pretty cynical about the quality of Filipino films that had been shown at the Chicago Film Festival over the past several years. I grew up in Manila in the 1980s, during a “Golden Age” of Philippine cinema and know the brilliant heights that Filipino directors (such as the late Lino Brocka, the only Filipino director until Mendoza, who had shown a film in the prestigious Main Competition section at Cannes) can achieve, if they put their minds to it, and if they get the right amount of funding and artistic support. The Filipino movies that have rotated through the Festival in the past had been trashy, exploitative, and badly-constructed, including Mendoza’s one-dimensional bore, The Masseur. Oddly, too, they were all focused on the sleazy side of gay sex and life in the Philippines (it almost seems like the Film Festival organizers kept on thinking- oh, we have this slot for a film about male prostitutes, their gay patrons, and the slums that they are all desperately trying to escape from, preferably with lots of gratuitous male-on-male sex and nudity, why don’t we go to the Philippines? Despite what Saturday nights at Roscoe’s might suggest, NOT everyone in the Philippines is gay). Serbis, which refers to the colloquial Tagalog for paid sex, seems to fit this bill quite nicely. Well, Serbis proves that pre-conceptions are meant to be shattered, and expectations exceeded, because it is one of the most astonishing and memorable movies I saw at the Film Festival this year. Imperfect, maddeningly self-indulgent at times, and yes, packed with gratuitous sex scenes and sensationalism, it also has searing social commentary, surprisingly detailed and incisive vignettes about Filipino culture, and the chutzpah to be an uncompromising, no-holds-barred, uniquely gutsy film that you won’t see anywhere else.