SONA2017: Brillante Mendoza’s Latest Work is Horrifying

A review of the Filipino auteur’s most challenging, most provocative production since Kinatay

by Philbert Dy

 

Back in 2009, Brillante Mendoza thrust Kinatay out in the world. It was a harrowing film that documented the abduction, abuse and execution of a woman at the hands of the police. Its main character, played by a pre-Probinsyano Coco Martin, is an unwitting police officer who watches in silent horror as the atrocity takes place. He was the audience surrogate: horrified at all the things happening, but still complicit in his unwillingness to act. It was a fine bit of provocation that would earn Mendoza the best director award at Cannes.

 

Mendoza revisits these themes in his latest work, simply titled State of the Nation Address 2017 (shortened in most marketing materials to SONA2017). It is just as much of an ordeal as the 2009 film, even though most of the violence takes place off screen. Rather than following an unwilling participant in the horrors taking place, Mendoza crafts a character study of the mastermind behind the horrific acts being perpetrated by the police.
 

After thirty minutes of rigid elocution, the main character starts to go off on improvised tangents that make Judd Apatow look restrained in comparison. This might be all more forgivable if any of it was funny.

 

Kinatay garnered some attention for a lengthy, rigorous middle section that took place inside a dark van traveling down EDSA. SONA2017 is even more audacious than that. The entire production is essentially one very long monologue. After a short introduction that involves an invocation of nationalism and religiosity, Mendoza stages a lengthy, rambling speech that exposes the dark underbelly of Filipino society.
Mendoza has never been known for his subtlety, and this production does little to change that impression. The blunt language of the speech makes clear the mania at the heart of the main character. Mendoza lets his camera get close; at times too close to the subject. Extreme closeups on the eyes feel like an overt homage to serial killer cinema. There is no ambiguity here: the subject is a murderer. He admits as much later in the monologue, with a line casually tossed off to chilling effect. Mendoza’s cutaways to the eager listening audience brings the horror to a higher pitch. It isn’t enough that there is a madman raving about killing people. There are enablers and sycophants cheering him on, baying for blood in their designer clothing.
As is generally a problem with the director, the whole thing goes on for far too long. His willingness to let his actors adlib proves to be a liability. After thirty minutes of rigid elocution, the main character starts to go off on improvised tangents that make Judd Apatow look restrained in comparison. This might be all more forgivable if any of it was funny. In spite of the laughter and applause of the audience, the comedy just doesn’t land. The best kind of comedy starts from the bottom and punches up. There is so little to be gained from humor gleaned from the powerful victimizing those that have no ability to fight back.
At some point, it just becomes repetitive and redundant. This kind of thing has been done before, and the repetition offers few benefits. The more compelling portions of the monologue adhere to some sort of structure. There are salient points made about the use of legal technicalities to delay the work of the government. There is an important argument about the failures of the government acquisition process. But a lot of these points get lost in the barrage of asides and overt attacks on specific media outlets and international watchdogs.
All in all, SONA2017 is a mixed bag. The hardest thing to swallow about the work is that there are points where it feels like the director is actually an adherent to the awful things being said by his subject. It’s an interesting reversal, since Kinatay seemed to justify its violent excesses by standing against the kind of violence portrayed within. But here, Mendoza comes to endorse the kind of horror portrayed in the film that gave him his most prestigious international prize. As a critic, one must always try to regard separate works individually. But one must admit here that the context could not be avoided. Mendoza might have once stood for something. But one is unsure if that is true now.