This review won't appear in print until Tuesday, but I'm posting it early here to alert more intrepid viewers, since it is only being screened once at the Miami Film Festival. Kinatay is the kind of film that practically dares you to watch it, but if you want to see it, I highly recommend catching it at the theater for maximum effect and not wait for the DVD.
Almost half of Brillante Mendoza's controversial, galvanizing Kinatay unfolds during a car ride. Some drug dealers in Manila - among them Peping (Coco Martin), a rookie cop who occasionally runs errands for the gang to help support his new wife and infant son - have kidnapped and beaten a prostitute (Maria Isabel Lopez) who owes them money and are driving her to an undisclosed location.
Using handheld video cameras, Mendoza allows the harrowing ride to unfold in something close to real time, the woman's agonizing screams and the heightened sounds of traffic underscoring the dark, murky images. Much of the screen is filled with shadowy shapes and faces lit only by passing cars and streetlights: You can't really see what's going on. Boredom, anxiety and tension build simultaneously as the ride stretches on and on (and on; I clocked it at about 30 minutes' worth of screen time).
If you haven't walked out by the time the kidnappers finally arrive at their destination, Kinatay further tests your mettle by depicting in graphic detail how the drug dealers handle junkies who don't settle their debts. When it premiered at Cannes last May, Kinatay earned Mendoza the Best Director prize, even though Roger Ebert had immortalized the movie as the worst film to ever be shown at the festival.
The disparity of reaction is understandable. Anyone who stumbles into Kinatay unaware of what's in store will be baffled and put off by Mendoza's meticulous attempt to put you inside Peping's head and make you experience exactly what he sees, hears and feels over the course of one long night's journey into hell. In marked contrast to the dynamics of Lola, Mendoza's latest film (to be shown at the festival on Wednesday and Thursday), narrative is not Kinatay's point. There is no narrative, really.
This is more of an exercise in experiential cinema, as well as a blistering critique of a society that drives its poorest to unimaginable acts for mere survival. The early scenes in Kinatay (Filipino for "slaughter") depict Peping's city-hall wedding to his girlfriend and the overall happiness of his friends and family. An hour later, as that same young man is standing by helplessly, witnessing the savage rape and dismemberment of a woman, Mendoza's message could not be more clear. Even if the filmmaker's hand is a bit heavy at times (the police academy shirt Peping wears reads "If you lose your integrity once, you lose it forever"), Kinatay's bruising power cannot be denied - at least for viewers with the patience and stomach to endure.
Kinatay screens Tuesday at 10 p.m. at the Regal South Beach as part of the 27th Miami International Film Festival. There will be walkouts.