Womb Doom: Mendoza Gives Us Another Poverty Stricken Filipino Narrative
Quickly assuming the stature of one of the most important directors from the Philippines, Brillante Mendoza churns out another macabre narrative of the hard knock lives from his native land with the effective Thy Womb. Working at break neck speed and putting out several shorts and a title or two a year, he’s earned a prolific reputation after a 2009 Cannes win for Best Director for the infamous Kinatay, and then followed that up with a starring role for the one and only Isabelle Huppert. But he switches gears a bit for this latest story, leaving behind a violence that dictates the narrative arc to tell a meditatively tragic tale, one which simmers gracefully to its abrupt finale.
An older, childless Muslim couple, Bangas-An (Bembol Roco) and Shalena (Naura Aunor) share a quiet, yet enjoyable life together in a small, isolated island community. The residents there live in what seems to be considerable poverty, living off the fruit of the land and the creatures of the sea. Daily outbursts of violence take place in the grocery market without anyone batting an eye, and pirates shoot Bangas-An one random day as the couple is out fishing. Despite all this, life doesn’t seem too dire, except that Shalena has never been able to bear her husband any children, and according to their traditions, this means their marriage was never quite solidified. Instead of her husband cheating on her, Shalena takes it upon herself to find him another bride, but they have an issue raising the dowry to pay for one. When a suitable young woman is finally found on another island, the impending union has a curious and detrimental outcome. The stipulation in the new bride’s dowry is that after the birth of the first child, Bangas-An must abandon his first wife, a footnote that Shalena is not made aware of. Soon, he will have to make a decision about whether to go forward with having a child, or abandon his loving first wife.
Mendoza’s latest is a ruminative exercise in the customs of these island dwellers, and there’s a lot of screen time spent on banal events, such as the preparation of a wedding celebration. Even amongst these seemingly traditional events, Mendoza manages to give us flourishes of the macabre, particularly in an unflinching scene where we see a bovine creature beheaded. The landscape is painstakingly photographed, itself looking lush and timeless, which clashes with the hovels on stilts precariously housing the beggarly island inhabitants. Nora Aunor, who is quite the star in the Philippines, is moving here, giving an excellent performance as the loving but tragically unaware spouse, determined to do anything to make her husband happy (and Mendoza favorite Mercedes Cabral pops up here, too).
While it could be argued that it feels a tad long for its simple narrative, Thy Womb does feel as if it suddenly ends just as it starts to hit a rather meaty stride, and one wishes he could have cut down the first half of the feature to explore some of the ramifications we see about to unfold. Mendoza isn’t making any statements about religion, faith, or even customs, really, but brings his characters to an intriguing conflict. It’s a curiously built film, but leaves us with a nagging thought that something more succinctly fruitful could have been said.
Reviewed on September 9 at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival – CONTEMPORARY WORLD CINEMA Programme.