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Brillante Mendoza shows the seamier side of life

The Filipino director's films will screen at UCLA in a two-day retrospective.

January 18, 2009|Susan King

Better late than never.

Filipino director Brillante Mendoza was 45 when he made his first film, "The Masseur," four years ago. And since then, he's made up for lost time, having directed six more gritty features that hark back to the Italian Neorealist cinema of post-World War II.

His latest film, "Serbis" -- which last year was the third Filipino film to screen in competition for the Golden Palm at Cannes -- will open a Mendoza retrospective next weekend, held by the UCLA Film and Television Archive in the Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum. The movie will also hit L.A. theaters Jan. 30.

The retrospective will present "Serbis" and "Slingshot" (2007) on Friday and "Masseur" and "Foster Child" (2007) on Saturday. (Mendoza, originally slated to appear both nights, won't attend because of a scheduling conflict.)

"Brillante is helping to bring attention to a whole new age of filmmaking in the Philippines," said UCLA programmer Paul Malcolm. "He has been incredibly prolific. For a guy [his age], he has the energy and sense of discovery of someone you might think is in his 20s, and with every film he is trying to really tap into a larger cinematic vocabulary."

Mendoza said independent cinema in his country has thrived for the last four years while mainstream cinema has struggled. "It's dying," he said. "We used to make, like 300 films a year, but now it's down to about 25 films a year. But you have like 50 indie films a year because of digital technology."

Mendoza worked for years in mainstream film as a production designer and segued into advertising when film work began to dry up. "It pays well, and it's a good life," he said of advertising. "I enjoyed it and was happy with it. I was really happy at that time."

Then a friend approached him about directing "Masseur," an adult, sexually explicit drama about a country boy torn between the family he left behind and his work as a prostitute at a gay massage parlor.

"He wasn't even a close friend," Mendoza said. "He knew a producer who wanted a gay film that would be released direct to video. They had a concept. When I read it, I asked if I could change the concept. They said, 'Yes, but you have to retain the title.' I said, 'No problem.' "

So he, the writer, his leading man, cinematographer, composer and sound designer began going to massage parlors like the one depicted in the film. "They had to understand the atmosphere," he said.

Mendoza shot "Masseur" on digital video in just eight days with a budget of about $10,000. The plan was to start selling it on video, but another friend had other ideas. He submitted it to various film festivals around the world. Not only was it accepted at the 2005 Locarno International Film Festival, but "Masseur" also won the top prize, the Golden Leopard

"Serbis," shot on 35-millimeter film, is Mendoza's most ambitious project. Set in a decrepit porn theater called the Family, the drama revolves around a splintered family, whose members live in and operate the mammoth old movie palace, and the gay hustlers and johns who frequent it.

The film features the stock company of actors Mendoza has created over the last four years, but the real star of "Serbis" is the theater, with its maze of stairs and rooms.

"It's a real structure" in Manila, Mendoza said. "It still does show films like that. The first time I said it was kind of dirty, and I said to the owner I might shoot the film there. After several months, I came back and they had painted it! I had to put back the kind of distressed look I saw before."

"Serbis," which means "service" in Tagalog, is filled with graphic nudity and oral sex scenes. Though it was in competition at the Cannes International Film Festival, the film polarized audiences, with numerous critics declaring the nudity and sexual situations to be gratuitous. (A slightly tamer, R-rated version will open in theaters here.)

Mendoza said he doesn't know what all the fuss is about. "If you can shoot films about death and love, why can't we show this? Making love is just . . . a part of life."

"He is telling stories that are set in a very specific cultural milieu," Malcolm said. "I think he has a very honest ethic in dealing with it."



Mendoza retrospective

Where: Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Price: $10

Contact: (310) 206-8013,

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