Wednesday, October 5, 2011

It's a Mixed Up, Muddled Up, Shook Up World Except for My Lola

The title refers to a line from The Kinks' famous song. It took me a decade or more before I listened to the lyrics closely enough to understand what the song was about.

Lola also means grandmother in Tagalog and is the title of Brillante Mendoza's latest film which screened at the YBCA last week.

Lola starring Anita Linda & Rustica Carpio; directed by Brillante Mendoza; Tagalog with subtitles; (2009)

The films of Brillante Mendoza have received quite a bit of screen time in the Bay Area over the past few years. I've seen Slingshot, Service and Kinatay in Bay Area theaters in past few years. Those three films and Lola were released consecutively between 2007 and 2009. Mendoza's latest film, Captured (with Isabelle Huppert), was released last month in France.

Lola is a simple film. The premise is that one young man robs and kills another young man. The audience doesn't see the crime but instead, sees the aftermath. Specifically, we see how it affects the two men's grandmothers. Lola Sepa (Anita Linda) is grieving her grandson's death but doesn't have enough money to pay for the burial. Lola Puring (Rustica Carpio) is beside herself worrying about her grandson who has been arrested for the crime.

The two Lolas do not know each other although their circumstances are similar - they both are matriarchs of extended families, appear to be widows and live in abject poverty. Sepa seems to live in a swamp although it might be an area flooded by torrential rainstorms. In some ways, her neighborhood resembles a Venice ghetto as people travel via boats between locations. Puring lives with her disabled son and another grandson who sells fruits and vegetables (without a license) from a makeshift cart outside their house.

The most interesting aspect of the film for me was the Philippine criminal justice system. The film implies that if the defendant and the victim (or family of the victim in cases of murder) can reach a settlement, criminal prosecution will be declined. In practice, that means the accused settles with the victim by monetary means. The film also implies this is a common practice in the Philippines.

The four Mendoza films I've seen are set in the slums of Manila or some other Philippine city. One thing Mendoza drives home repeatedly is that the poor cannot afford to have principles. So it is for our lolas. Sepa won't meet with Puring because she is too upset about her grandson's death and wants the accused to be prosecuted. At first, Puring doesn't have enough money to offer a settlement. Slowly, the two women change in reaction to the stress of their situation.

Puring embarks on a money making expeditions - hocking her grandson's prized television, begging neighbors, shortchanging customers at the vegetable stand and seemingly taking out a loan against her family's farm in the countryside where her younger sister's family lives. Sepa is literally living with her dead grandson as the coffin takes up significant space in their shanty. She is encouraged to consider a settlement by her daughter and the constant presence of the coffin reminds her that she must somehow find a way to pay for the burial.

Eventually, the two lolas reach a settlement which they've both become resigned to. Far from being happy, they seem relieved that the ordeal is over.

What I also found interesting about the film is the way the crime was secondary to the plot. The actual guilt of Puring's grandson is never explored nor the relationship between the two men. It's implied the crime was a drug deal gone bad. Puring's other grandson seems to seethe at his grandmother's efforts to help his cousin as though they had been through this before (addicts will keep relying on their families to bail them out of trouble).

Mendoza tells the story with a detached, almost documentarian style. For the most part, he doesn't favor one side over the other. There was a seen where Lola Sepa had to use the restroom at the courthouse. The restroom was closed for repairs and unable to hold her bladder, she urinated in the hallway. I thought that scene was gratuitous. Lola Puring comes off worse because we see her lying about her grandson's circumstances and behaving dishonestly but her unconditional support for her grandson is touching if not slightly frustrating.

With Lola, Mendoza adds to his noteworthy filmography. Not as graphic as Kinatay or as sleazy as Service, Lola show yet another side of the Filipino underclass and the poverty in which they reside. Whereas previous films called into question the characters' moral poverty to varying degrees, Lola nearly rationalizes their actions and puts aside the notions of right and wrong.

Lola is a grim film. It's worth seeing if you're a fan of Mendoza. It's like he's channeling Italian Neorealism across 60 years and 6,000 miles.

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