The society of respected film critics that hands out the annual Gawad Urian in cinematic excellence

Kinatay: Cry slaughter!

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By Lito Zulueta

“KINATAY,” for which Brillante Mendoza won the Best Director Award of the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, is one wild nightmare romp though the underbelly of Manila life on the literal level, and a plunge into one of Dante’s Inner circles on the spiritual level. It is the director’s unsentimental Quiapo epic, “Tirador” (2007), recast into something more focused, even harsher, a centripetal drive toward the heart of darkness.

The movie starts off all bright and airy enough. Peping (Coco Martin), a young criminology student, is getting married, and the audience sees him and his fiancée happy and excited as they take their vows and are joined later by kin and kith for a modest reception at a restaurant. Later he goes to a Quiapo school for the day’s classes (perhaps at the Manuel L. Quezon University, which somehow makes references to “Tirador”), and when the audience starts to wonder how he’s going to raise a family now that he’s married but still in school, they see him suddenly pounding the inner-city beat where he does his practicum while earning on the side: he clearly is a runner for the protection racket by the local police.

A friend and fellow runner tells Peping he could earn extra if he would come along for the night’s haunt with the bosses. Eager to start a family, he goes along, and their van of eager interns and pot-bellied cops proceeds to pick up a prostitute, stuff her mouth and hogtie her, and bring her to an out-of-town halfway house. The abducted whore turns out to have absconded several times on a loan she owes the big boss, whom the audience does not see but operates as some sort of a Big Brother, an all-seeing god. She haggles for time and tries to wangle a deal, but the big boss has reached the end of his tether.

To Peping’s horror, the cops proceed to rape and kill her, then chop her body into pieces. On the drive back, they throw the parts one by one out of the window. Back in the city, he begs off joining them for breakfast, and he struggles to come home to his wife, now cooking breakfast, unknowing of the horrors her husband has been exposed to, the bright sheen of the morning around her obscuring the secrets of the night her husband holds in his memory. Has their marriage and their bright sense of optimism of life and the future been dealt with a trauma from which there would never be a recovery?

A master of unobtrusive technique and documentary realism, Mendoza contrasts day and night, brilliance and shadows, in this moral allegory that however does not moralize. As in “Serbis,” the action happens all in one day, the Greek unities in time, place and action serving to pack the viewing into one concentrated mass where the physical and the metaphysical mesh.

But even more powerfully in “Kinatay,” the focused intensity of the narrative embodies Peping’s growing horror and realization that he has been forced into a rite of passage where there’s no turning back; where he would have to put into the crucible his all too naïve aspiration to be a law enforcer and a good husband and family man. Will his idealism survive the murder, mayhem and corruption? Or will he just tag along or even in a left-handed way, embrace the system, much like settling down to family, home and hearth? As always, there are no easy answers. This is after all a Brillante Mendoza film—a universe of unremitting reality and uncertainty, where everything’s a matter of life and death, or for that matter, one riveting pilgrimage to bloodbath and butchery, to interrogation and realization.