Thanks to the Filipino series running all month at the Siskel Center, Chicagoans can finally catch up with two of the most talked-about directors in global art cinema today—Lav Diaz, whose J.R. Jones-recommended Norte, the End of History screens again on Saturday 9/27, and Brillante Mendoza, whose 2012 Venice prizewinner Thy Womb plays this coming Saturday at 5:15 PM and the following Thursday at 8:15 PM. For the past decade Mendoza’s work has played frequently at European festivals, and in 2009 he became the first Filipino filmmaker to win the Best Director prize at Cannes. Mendoza is a controversial figure at home and abroad, not only for his explicit sex and violence but for his unpleasant depictions of Filipino society on the whole. Though eye-opening and heartbreaking, Thy Womb is less extreme than the films on which Mendoza built his international reputation, making it a fine introduction to his work. It also features some of the best big-screen photography to hit Chicago this year.
Predictably critics of the 54-year-old director accuse him of exploitation and prurience, while defenders praise him for confronting social injustice in all its ugliness. This debate fails to acknowledge, however, the sheer dynamism of Mendoza’s filmmaking, as well as the director’s sense of humor and overt sympathy for victimized characters. Serbis, his only other film to play theatrically here (the first time to a scandalized full house at the Chicago International Film Festival in 2008), concerns a family-run movie palace that’s transformed into a cruising spot for gay and transgender men. The film’s central joke is that the family still behaves more or less like a typical Filipino clan, illustrating the resilience of national traditions in the face of cultural degradation. The highly mobile cinematography reflects the family’s fighting spirit, as Mendoza’s camera struggles visibly to remain at the heart of the action at all times. Comparable to major films by Shohei Imamura (Pigs and Battleships, The Insect Woman), Serbis constructs its aesthetic around the grit and energy that enables some people to persist amid squalor.
The same can be said of Thy Womb, which makes life in an impoverished fishing village seem as tense as a Hollywood action movie. It takes place on Tawi-Tawi, a small island in the southwestern Philippines that’s been turned into a war zone by pirates, religious extremists, and sectarian militias. The threat of violent attack hangs over the story at all times, though the film’s protagonists weather the situation with remarkable calm. They are a childless, long-married couple who are pillars of their community, providing favors and solace to all their neighbors. Mendoza often frames them in medium-long shot against the wide-open ocean or nearby mountains, subtly linking their enduring fortitude to the timeless beauty of their environment. Mendoza uses close-ups sparingly—when he does, the characters’ faces and bodies seem as towering as the landscapes.
Critic Amy Taubin described Mendoza’s Kinatay—which gained instant notoriety for its 45-minute, real-time sequence depicting the abduction, gang rape, murder, and dismemberment of a Manila prostitute—as “serious political filmmaking” that called attention to “the most extreme crimes against women that are taking place all over the world every day.” (Another admirer of the film was Isabelle Huppert, who presided over the Cannes jury that awarded Mendoza the Best Director prize and later starred in his 2012 docudrama Captive, about the 2001 kidnapping of 20 European tourists by the militant group Abu Sayyaf.) Thy Womb also calls attention to the oppression of women, though the oppression considered here is that of patriarchal hegemony. The film depicts the undoing of the couple’s loving marriage—which is caused not by terrorist activity, but by primitive social tradition. Even though they’re past middle age and live in constant peril, the husband desires an offspring. The wife, ever devoted, agrees to help him find a younger spouse, fully aware that he might have to get divorced in order to appease a new bride. In this culture, we learn, motherhood remains the highest honor a woman can have. Though Shaleha, the wife, is a mother figure to most of her community (as well as its most respected midwife), her inability to conceive makes her a second-class citizen.
More upsetting than the unexpected bursts of violence that interrupt Thy Womb is Shaleha’s calm acceptance of her own degradation. Mendoza ameliorates the frightening possibility of a terrorist attack with the more encouraging possibility that Bangas-An (the husband) will realize how satisfied he is with Shaleha and give up his search. The film’s sense of hope is strengthened by Nora Aunor’s extraordinary performance as Shaleha, which is as emotional and unpredictable as Mendoza’s images.