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Brillante Mendoza: ‘COVID should not stop us from continuing our work’

By SCOTT GARCEAU, The Philippine STAR Published Nov 08, 2021 5:00 am

Filmmaker Brillante Mendoza has a history with the Tokyo International Film Festival, from first being a judge back in 2016 to now showing two films, Payback (Resbak) and Gensan Punch, at the 34th TIFF festival this year.

We joined the online media session with Mendoza to get some personal takes on his first Japanese-Filipino production (it was written by Honee Alipio, produced by Gentle Underground Monkeys of Japan and Mendoza’s Center Stage Productions).

Gensan Punch tells the true-life story of Nao Tsuchiyama (played by Japanese actor Shogen from the television mini-series Street Fighter: Assassin’s Fist and Death Note), a Japanese man with a prosthetic leg who trains to become a boxer in the Philippines.

Payback follows a young motorcycle thief caught up in the slum crime world.

Both films mix Mendoza’s favored “found story” method of storytelling, rife with details that reflect how life is in the Philippines — an aspect that is always of keen interest to Japanese audiences, whether it’s the Filipino “rap battle” in Payback, the gritty motorcycle chases, or the sight of Pinoy kids baiting rats in provincial barangays with bags of rice — part of government “pest control” efforts.

One thing about Mendoza’s films: they reflect a reality that may baffle or shock foreign viewers — but it’s a reality Filipinos all can recognize in day-to-day life.

Lucky media in Japan got to attend all the screenings and pitch questions to a wide range of international directors and actors (it opened and closed with two American releases — Clint Eastwood’s Cry Macho and Stephen Chbosky’s Dear Evan Hansen), carrying on for the second year as a hybrid mix of online screenings and on-site red carpet events.

In a separate forum, TIFF Jury Captain Isabelle Huppert and director Hamaguchi Ryusuke (Drive My Car) discussed the “Mysteries of Natural Acting,” which seems apropos as film fests try to carry on during a pandemic, acting out “the new normal.”

Jury captain Isabelle Huppert partnered with director Hamaguchi Ryusuke (Drive My Car, based on a Haruki Murakami story) to discuss the acting craft.

But for Mendoza, artists don’t have the option of quitting what they do.

“I think COVID should not stop us from continuing our work,” he said during the TIFF Talk Salon online.

“This is the situation that we have right now. But (as Filipinos) we’ve been through even harder situations in the past. But I think it shouldn’t hinder us from creating and producing something worthy, especially if what we are doing is something that we really love.”

Philippine director Brillante Mendoza during the TIFF Talk Salon

Questions from the Japanese and global media focused on Mendoza’s verité approach, including “hiding” cameras along streets and in cars to shoot a motorcycle chase (“The actors don’t know where they’re hidden”).

Real-life grittiness may be the result in Mendoza’s films, but the path to getting there is paved with the usual methodical planning and production design. Even the rats in the aforementioned scene were local white rats “we had to dye black” to look more convincing; the cockroaches had to be gathered and released on set from boxes.

Mendoza uses hidden cameras along his filming route for action scenes like this motorcycle chase in Payback.

All that seeming chaos comes about through disciplined process: “In shooting a film, I think in totality: I’m concerned with setups, blocking, cameras. I take one thing at a time. I do research for the script, and as soon as the script is finished, I focus on locations, actors. During the shoot I focus on the blocking, then the editing and sound. That’s when I put it all together.”

The result in most of Mendoza’s films is a prevailing mood: “Mood is very critical, and it’s quite difficult to achieve. It’s not about the color of the costumes, but the feel. Is this film going to feel gritty? Is it taken straight from reality, like a documentary? Will this film make we feel good, or bother me at the end? That’s how I view production design. It’s what we see and feel from what’s captured on the screen.”

Gensan Punch just won at the 26th Busan International Film Festival and marks a burgeoning collaboration between Philippine and Japanese cinema, and perhaps other Asian partners as well. After the festival circuit, Gensan Punch will be shown on HBO Asia, which highlights Asian cinema and original series.

While each Mendoza entry highlights a social problem, it’s more about “calling attention” to issues, not preaching. Whether it’s Ma’Rosa, Gensan Punch or Payback, “We always interpret these issues within our work, without looking like propaganda against, or for, the government.”

   On set with Japanese actor Shogen filming Gensan Punch.

One thing about Mendoza’s films: they reflect a reality that may baffle or shock foreign viewers — but it’s a reality Filipinos all can recognize in day-to-day life.

The fact that he continues to cover that waterfront — even amid a pandemic, and the precarious state of local cinema — speaks volumes.

“The reality now is that because of the technology of streaming, and the COVID situation, films will largely be shown online,” he recognizes. “This is more on the business aspect of showing films. For artists and filmmakers, I think it’s an advantage — your films can be watched all over the world, in your homes, where you want them. A lot of artists don’t like that idea.”

He looks back on the days of working with 35mm celluloid, when watching on a big screen was “really an experience.” Yet today’s situation doesn’t always encourage that. “We have to lead by the situation we have now. It shouldn’t hamper us as artists to create meaningful films.”

The 34th Tokyo International Film Festival opened October 30 and concluded today with screenings in the Hibiya-Yurakucho-Ginza area.