INTERNATIONAL CINEMA It wouldn't be a Cannes Film Festival without scandals onscreen and off. The recent 63rd edition found international media struggling to come up with some Jean-Luc Godard's no-show, the generally feh quality of competition films. Pretty weak. Little incited righteous outrage over artistic license as before: think of prior provocations by Gaspar Noé, Carlos Reygadas, and Vincent Gallo.
But last year there was not only Lars von Trier's polarizing Antichrist but a film Roger Ebert called "the worst film in the history of Cannes." Kinatay nonetheless won Brillante Mendoza a best director jury prize. This unwatchable piece of arty trash (per Ebert) premieres locally this weekend. Clearly, differences of opinion will prevail.
Kinatay i.e. "butchery," so Tagalog speakers are forewarned falls into that Cinema of Punishment category von Trier, Noé, and ever-increasing younger filmmakers seem inordinately fond of. The basic idea being to rub your nose in it, "it" being the soullessness of contemporary life as illustrated by some combination of cruelty, tedium, unpleasantly graphic content, and aesthetic onslaught. At worst, movies classifiable this way exist for nothing beyond their smug, empty shock value. At best, they really do shock you into a state of heightened ... something. Sensitivity? Dismay?
Kinatay is not a vanity wank à la Gallo's The Brown Bunny (2003). Nor does
it over-enjoy the sadism it's decrying a la Noé. It is grueling, not just in content terms but the viewer effort required. But it's also a work by a clearly gifted filmmaker, the Philippines' leading indie talent, serious in intent if problematic.
Newlywed police trainee Peping (Coco Martin) needs extra cash. So he agrees to a shady mission whose purpose is only gradually gleaned, to his horror: riding along with corrupt fellow cops as they abduct, beat, rape, and murder prostitute Madonna (Maria Isabel Lopez), ostensibly to punish her large drug debt.
Peping's long night of squirming empathy, inaction, and major disillusionment feels like it passes in real time. Yet there's considerable craft in Mendoza's aesthetic choices, not to mention an uncommonly rich sense of teeming, dangerous Manila street life in his opening scenes. I highly doubt Kinatay was the worst Cannes film of 2009, let alone ever.
Ebert, freshly anointed by San Francisco International Festival celebration and generally considered a "seventh art" angel, has a history of such pronouncements. Prior movies he's been appalled by include Blue Velvet (1986), I Am Curious (Yellow) (1967), Pink Flamingos (1972), The Tenant (1976), and recent Australian horror Wolf Creek (2005). The latter was terrific (and a commercial bust) precisely because it made its characters' serial-killer'd travails truly punishing to watch. Ebert isn't infallible, and "worst ever" pronouncements are often fallible in the extreme.
Sat/12, 7:30 p.m.; Sun/13, 4:30 p.m., $6$8
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission, SF