Friday, July 23, 2010

Mendoza’s Slingshot

It is an environment marked by illicit drugs, sex, violence, and dentures. Welcome to the slums of Manila. While viewers probably assumed life was hard there, Brilliante Mendoza confirms it in spades in Slingshot (trailer here), his hyper-kinetic drama of Manila’s have-nots that opens today at the Producer’s Club’s IndieHouse Cinema, Manhattan’s newest art-house venue.

Like a dodgy Paul Revere, a slum dweller runs through the Quiapo neighborhood shouting warnings of an impending police raid. It certainly seems as if everyone there has something to hide. Despite the tip-off, many are swept up in the dragnet. Fortunately, there is an election fast approaching, so the local party hacks are happy to supply get-out-of-jail cards. Frankly, everyone appears to be on the make, as the poor and marginalized prey on each other, while the sight of Manila’s finest hardly inspires relief in the citizenry. Such is the grimy, cynical picture of the Quiapo district Mendoza offers to shock viewers out of their complacency.

Though it might sound like a class conscious issue film (set during Holy Week for extra added irony), Slingshot careens through the streets of Manila like a ricocheting bullet. Engaging in some serious shaky cam, Mendoza and his fellow camera men follow a large cast of characters at street level, as they navigate the crime and degradation unfolding around them. While his early adrenaline stoked scenes of the raid and its aftermath are bracing, the film quickly becomes exhausting. It seems like Mendoza has little compassion for his characters, forcing them to endure all manner of indignities. Indeed, when the would-be cute Tess and her junkie boyfriend Rex start mucking through a sewer pipe in search of her lost dentures, the film approaches overkill.

Even though Slingshot features many established Filipino actors, it has a decidedly verité “cinema of the streets” vibe, almost like an amped up Cassavetes film. In a way, it is high praise to observe the film’s largely professional ensemble seem like untrained actors plucked from this seedy world. Still, Angela Ruiz definitely stands out as the dentally challenged Tess.

There is no getting around the grueling nature of Slingshot. In fact, it downright revels in its nihilistic naturalism. While it is undoubtedly a visceral viewing experience, without a strong rooting interest or any representative of basic human decency to latch onto, it is difficult to feel any anger or sadness during the film, unlike Mendoza’s deeply humane Lola. An accomplished but hollow film, Slingshot opens today (7/23) at IndieHouse.