Thursday, September 6, 2012

Brillante Mendoza's Captive - Making War and Terrorism a Mundane Enterprise

In the darkest evening of 2001, Abu Sayyaf bandits invade the island resort of Dos Palmas, just off the coast of Puerto Princesa, Palawan. They pilfer the rooms and take the occupants as hostages, many of whom are foreigners. They ferry their victims to Basilan, taking them through the jungle, over hills, using them as pawns against military operations and peddling them for multimillion peso ransoms. From the outset, these hostages are ironically given disclaimers: that their captors practice a high level of morality, and that “man shouldn’t touch woman” unless they’re married of course. But this false sense of security is gradually shattered as the hostages battle bondage, hunger, illness, rough living conditions, and the shenanigans of their captors. Ransoms are gradually set according to occupation (“Missionaries, walang pera ‘yan!), stature (“May ari kayo ng bangko?”),  age (“Dapat iniwan nyo na yan. Pababagalin tayo nyan.”), race (“Chinese ka? Eh di madami kang pera.”), profession (doctors and nurses in a hospital are taken as well, like the characters of Angel Aquino, Allan Paule, and Che Ramos), etc.


Among these victims, we follow Therese (Isabelle Huppert), a French missionary who has been roaming the country for her missionary work for 5 years; and her septuagenarian colleague Soledad (Rustica Carpio). For almost one year, the victims agonize getting caught in the crossfire against the government’s military forces (“We see their helicopters fly over us. They see us, but they shoot us anyway,” bemoans one victim.) When leader Abu Saiyed (Raymond Bagatsing) fancies a girl (Che Ramos), she gets taken to the hill and offered marriage; a proposition she couldn’t refuse. A lady doctor (Angel Aquino) gets raped by Saiyed’s successor (Sid Lucero). 

To celebrate Philippine Independence Day, a “white man” is beheaded as “gift to the President”.  When Soledad falls ill and dies, Therese gets attached to shy, 12-year old Hamed who was “recruited” after a siege in his village. One morning, a henchman (Ronnie Lazaro) gets a visit from a friend (Joel Torre) who was accompanying a TV journalist (Arlyn dela Cruz) for the requisite “proof of life”. As individual negotiators acquiesce, ransoms are predatorily hiked up. Though some of the victims get released, it becomes clear that the intention was to keep more hostages – and milk the situation for whatever it's worth. Will Therese and her colleagues survive this dilemma?

Therese to French embassy: "This is crazy. But here's my number. So call me maybe."

Director Brillante Mendoza valiantly tackles a sour chapter in the querulous war in Mindanao, south of the Philippine archipelago. He loosely derives his narrative from the memoirs (“In the Presence of My Enemies”) of real life hostage survivor Grace Burnham (whose husband perished in the crisis). Mendoza never turns his back against contentious narratives. Unfortunately, he is gradually building a growing community of naysayers who scoff at his cinematic conceit. While I love most of Mendoza’s body of work – from “Masahista” to “Serbis”, from “Lola” to “Kinatay” (for which he won Cannes’ Best Director plum), Mendoza’s decision to take on this harrowing tale is suspicious. If he’s courting the attention of an international audience, by riding on the notoriety of the situation, then he obviously didn’t succeed because Cannes and Venice seemed to have rejected “Captive” from exhibition. Regardless, Berlin welcomed him with open arms.


The films is told chronologically: Day 5 in Tuburan, Basilan; Day 6 at the Jose Ma. Torres Hospital in Lamitan; Day 46 in the jungles – the contentious wedding of Joan (Ramos) to Abu Saiyed (Bagatsing); Day 183 in Sumisip, Basilan for the “proof of life”, and so on. It soon becomes clear that this seemingly scriptless, improvisational atmosphere meanders into ennui. In fact, despite the gravity of violent extermination (beheadings) and rape, these scenes feel wanting of grit, tension and urgency, unusually unbecoming of hostage dramas. For a few moments, they almost feel like nothing but extreme sports more than bandit ministrations. A picnic in the wilds, anyone?


There are various moments of head scratching annoyance as well. When Ronnie Lazaro throws a box of Bible in the sea, Huppert fights with all her might. Surely she understood the gravity of the situation and realized that if they could easily behead an innocent man, they wouldn't hesitate to throw a penniless missionary in the sea along with her Bibles. We also find Huppert's “catfighting” with Sid Lucero (who earlier ravaged Angel Aquino) unrealistic. You simply don't provoke the devil, do you? While most victims speak with hushed tones as they step on thin glass, Huppert's Therese is impervious to the power they hold over all of them, her included. Her French government didn’t want to dole out money for ransom. Ditto her family. She was expendable. Didn’t they behead one white man for lesser infraction? 

In another scene, Madeleine Nicolas, who plays one of the hostages, takes the phone from her captors, imploring to the authorities to stop shooting at them. While this isn’t unusual, she did this in English! Sosi, debah? Were the Philippine officers States-bread and English speaking? Or was this “official time”, thus should be spoken in the Queen’s tongue? I am sure she’d be more emphatic with “Huwag nyo po kaming paputukan” than “Darn! Stop firing at us, dingbats!” 


Moreover, in several scenes, we find the bandits praying to their Great Allah, but I find it ironic to invoke the presence and mercy of God while curtailing the liberties of others. Do they offer severed heads to Allah? How merciful is such God if they live by violence? Isn't "doing harm unto others" a foreign concept in Godliness? Surely, a powerful Maker would disallow rape, murder, terror and mayhem. Unless we’re harping on the omnipresence of a different being more akin to fire and eternal damnation – and this could not be Allah. What I am saying is, God – in his various names – couldn’t be mean, parsimonious and violent. And if His name is invoked during these random acts of violence, then He is, in the process, dishonored, isn’t He? So matakot na kayo sa pinaggagawa nyo, leche kayo! Oops! Got carried away. :)


There is a cinematic moment of pure magic in “Captive”. When Therese wakes up beside young Hamed, she found a sarimanor, a legendary and colorful bird of the Maranao (believed to be a handsome young man searching for his lovely maiden). I was transfixed to my seat. Unfortunately, this mystical moment seemed misplaced, I half expected a narrative detour going the route of Aureaus Solito’s “Busong”. If it was an allegorical element, the meaning is lost on me. 


War is abrasive, grungy, fatuous, and harrowing. Except for the grime, you miss these characteristics here. A reviewer was said to have labeled the film “properly subdued”, but one wonders how subtlety figures in an experience like getting raped, captured or beheaded. To call subtlety “proper” for a theme akin to “Captive” smacks of pretension. After all, which character in this seemingly tedious tale is thoroughly expounded? We only know them superficially thus it’s hard to invest empathy on anyone; even the ones that got raped. If that’s not troubling, I don’t know what is.

Another review from Lito Zulueta of the Philippine Daily Inquirer points out and I quote, “Mendoza displays mastery of visual language and skillfully calibrates sequences of carnage and atrocity with neither sensationalism nor fakery.” Fact is, you cannot downplay violence nor avoid sensationalism if the act itself is staggering, lurid and excessive. Doing so is like drinking a cup of previously steaming coffee that’s gone cold and, well, flat. You lose the visceral component of the experience. Such is the case in “Captive” where the aforementioned atrocity becomes mere child’s play. And terrorism is never just a child's play. 

Isabelle Huppert is more masterful in this respect than her director. Her face is a canvas of crystal emotions. You look at her luminous face and realize her emotive adeptness. It’s a pity then that she shares segmented, albeit limited screen time with other actors. She deserves a back story more than just a glimpse of her life back home: that she has a daughter and two sons. Other than that, we don’t have anything else to anchor our sympathy on.  

There are several cameos from well known indie players: Coco Martin appears as a “tenyente” passing by a village (a school); there’s Kristoffer King, Neil Ryan Sese, Bernard Palanca, Baron Geisler, Mon Confiado, Tado, Maria Isabel Lopez, Mercedes Cabral, Evelyn Vargas, Anita Linda,

With a gaunt narrative flesh and tepid storytelling, your sensibility expects the ultimate denouement characteristic of other Brillante Mendoza flicks. It wasn’t there. 

She would rather ask for help in English! "Don't shoot us! Hold the fire, for Pete's sake!"

In these scenes, they hail Allah after every violent act. Something is incongruent, right?

Sarimanok. This photo only courtesy of E. San Juan Jr.'s "Ipaubaya sa Ulikba" -

Coco Martin does a short but eye-catching cameo.

Isabelle Huppert, the pouty French superstar.


Armando dela Cruz said...

Therese's character is the most complex. When the movie starts to drag and starts to get tedious, she just drops a line, and you're invested once more.

Generally, the film's acceptable.

Cathy Pena said...


I like Therese mostly because I admire Huppert. In fact I must have more than a couple of her films reviewed here. But to be honest, there were two characters similarly patterned after Grace Burnham - hers (Therese's) and the wife of the white couple (the one who complained ("I see helicopters flying above us..."). This makes Therese's part redundant. And as mentioned, there's hardly character development nor back story to anchor our sympathy on, which is a pity. said...

The problem I have with this film is that the A-list actors make it hard to suspend disbelief. The characterization of the terrorists are so thin that it's hard to see the actors transform into them.

The cameos were also distracting. You're already invested, then the cameo throws you off! Uy si Coco Martin! Uy si Anita Linda! The scene where Coco and Anita were talking together transported me to Sta. Nina.

Cathy Pena said...


I didn't mind the cameos. They provided moments that supervened cinematic lassitude because of how meandering the story was. :)