29 September 2009 | jamesnicolay
Brillante Mendoza's "Kinatay" outscores every Filipino film for its masterful exploration of sound and its effect on people.
If there's one thing about widely marketed Filipino movies which should improve dramatically, it's sound--I absolutely loathe the annoying synthesized staple background music being forced upon us each time the characters are set to spew their spit with their loud, hammy dialogues, or whenever someone is about to cry. That's why I applaud local indie films which at least feature original scores or unusual songs to give better local color to the story. Some experimental films by some of the innovative, unpopular directors even skip background music in order to give a sense of realism to their films. And what a relief--here comes Brillante Mendoza's "Kinatay"--which I believe outscores--pun intended--every Filipino film for its masterful exploration of sound and its effect on people.
"Kinatay"--before it won the Best Director Award in the most prestigious film festival in the world--was butchered by various international critics when the film was screened in Cannes. They blamed the unsteady video and the lack of light in about half of the entire film. Even the famous critic Roger Ebert dismissed "Kinatay" as the worst film ever screened in Cannes, even going as far as saying that he wanted to apologize to Vince Gallo for saying the same remark about his "The Brown Bunny." (I had the misfortune of seeing Gallo's film and I thought that Ebert should not retract his statement about Gallo's horrible, conceited trash.)
Movie watching for me has always been both a visual and an auditory experience. Often, movie makers tend to focus on the story or the actors or even special effects. But few directors actually bother to heighten music or sound as the most important aspect in a film. Quentin Tarantino, who's notorious for his wild taste in music in his films, is one of the directors who, I believe, highlights sound in his work. In his "Kill Bill Vol.2", one of the crucial scenes is when The Bride gets buried alive and the video of the movie is slowly diminished by the sight of dirt covering the entire screen. For a few seconds, we hear nothing but the sound of gasping, whimpering, and crying from the protagonist as her villains make loud noises with their shovels digging and throwing dirt to the screen. Experiencing this in a theater gives the audience a claustrophobic environment where we empathize with the experience of struggling of the character.
This sadistic manipulation of sound, for me, is crucial to understand "Kinatay." Mendoza wanted to make the audience fear more for the victim by making them see less details and hear more. By making the cries of Madonna nonstop and interspersing with the curses of the police officers, the audience feels equally threatened, abused, and angered. The background music reinforces the atmosphere of terror as it sounds like a masterful and unique score of a thriller or horror film.
I actually think it's pretty obvious that since the visuals are intentionally dark and shaky, the director wanted the audience to hear the movie out instead. Unfortunately, many viewers (critics included) are already blinded by digital spectacles. How ordinary it is for modern viewers nowadays to see a film just because the movie has good visual effects. There are only a few people who after watching a film goes out to say that the film has superb score or background music.
The striking quality of the sound of "Kinatay" is definitely its profound sense of realism. We hear the sounds of the city during the first thirty minutes of the film, and for people who live in Manila, it feels like home--with all the deafening noise of the vehicles, shouts of the vendors, gossips of the housewives, screams of street basketball players, music from TV, cellphones, radios, and even noises from animals. But as night falls, the absence of noise becomes more threatening. A simple curse in the middle of the night already gives us the creeps--what more if the curses and screams are confined in a compact vehicle, a remote house in the province?
The loudest sound in the movie comes from the facial expressions of Peping. In his silence, we hear the terrifying outburst of guilt, of helplessness, and of fear. With Peping, we become passive witnesses to crime and become deaf to the cries of the victim. We know exactly who are the dregs of society and yet we do nothing because we know that we are powerless because these villains are some of the most powerful people in the society. And sad to say, the message of Brillante Mendoza has to be heard loud and clear: this is what our reality sounds like today.