'Captive' : Brillante Mendoza holds the audience hostage

Captive, the new movie by the prolific Brillante Mendoza, has come under fire from foreign critics. Indiewire called it "mercilessly redundant," and "(lacking) any coherent emotional hook or worldly argument". The Hollywood Reporter said it lacked "a spark of storytelling that would pull it out of the historical recreation category". The Brag noted that "The monotony of life as a long-term hostage is so well conveyed…that you feel like the film has taken you hostage as well."

We agree with the above, but we think they are actually the movie's strong points. By cutting out artifice the filmmaker thrusts us into the thick of things and makes us experience the ordeal. We're not allowed to remain detached observers: we're all in it together.

Captive, like so many Filipino action movies starring actors turned politicians, is based on a "true-to-life" story. In 2001, the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf kidnapped tourists from a resort in Palawan and brought them to Mindanao, where they spent over a year trudging through the jungle while negotiations proceeded with excruciating slowness.

Unlike the usual "true-to-life" stories that movie stars have cashed in for political careers, Captive really is life-like. There is little attempt to dramatize events or provide the characters with backstories. We do not know who these people are or where they come from. Obviously the kidnappers are the villains of the piece, but they are not demonized. The hostages don't deserve that kind of treatment, no one does, but they can be whiny and annoying.

The great Isabelle Huppert (who chaired the jury that gave Mendoza the Best Director prize at Cannes) is Therese Bourgoine, the token point-of-view character, a Christian missionary who is seized the minute she arrives on the island. Therese is a skimpy sketch; without the actress's gifts she might've become a stereotype victim. Instead Huppert makes her both feisty and brittle. One of the first things she does is to establish her willingness to sacrifice her life for her religion - a quality she shares with her captors. You ought to pity her, but you sense that she doesn't want it. It is true, as a disgruntled critic wrote, that we have no one to root for, though in all shallowness we have to say that that is a good-looking bunch of kidnappers (Raymond Bagatsing, Sid Lucero, Neil Ryan Sese, other actors with facial hair).

Captive begins with the kidnapping: unknown men with guns barging into rooms, dragging the guests out, herding them into a boat. There are no introductions or explanations, just the title that says "Day 1". We don't know who the armed men are, we don't know the guests, we're completely on our own. We're on a boat with total strangers, the kidnappers' spokesman (Ronnie Lazaro) sounds like he's making election speeches, they're looking for rich people they can charge ransom for. We know as much as the hostages do, which is to do what the men with guns say.

In short, We Are Hostages and for the next two hours we stagger across the jungle with very little to eat or drink. We get shot at by random army units and wait for a rescue mission that takes too long to arrive. We listen to the kidnappers praying and they talk in vague terms about why they've taken hostages, but apart from their leaders they don't seem to know what they’re doing. There is a 12-year-boy among them. There is a siege in a hospital. Some hostages are released after their ransom is paid.

Other than the danger of getting killed at any minute, life goes on as it always does: long stretches of tedium broken up by sharp bursts of action. People fall in love (Stockholm Syndrome) and marry (a kind of institutionalized rape) in these dire circumstances; the human capacity for adaptation is amazing. There are moments of humor that foreigners have found surreal but are very Pinoy, such as the "how to wash under a malong" sequence.
Mendoza's work has a strain of obviousness: recall the boils on Coco Martin's ass in Serbis and the religious billboards flashing on the highway as the murderers drive to their grisly task in Kinatay. It surfaces once again in Captive, where the kidnapping thriller suddenly turns wildlife documentary to cite parallels between man and nature. Okay, terrorists capture hostages, snake hunts bird, we get it, nature is cruel. Later a colorful bird flits among the trees, and it's so obviously computer-generated we wonder if it's an ad for the Sarimanok channel.

Such contrivances undermine the rawness and immediacy of Captive; they remind us that we're watching a movie. A Christian burial is paired with a Muslim burial - we get it, people are the same. A pregnancy is followed by a death - fine, circle of life. Huppert's big emotional moment is framed by a black border and a blinking light - because it's a video interview. So you don't forget, there's some small talk with the journalist, who sounds like she's about to cut to a commercial.

Still, this is the least black-and-white of Mendoza's movies and there are signs that the filmmaker is acquiring subtlety. The motives of the terrorists are never made clear, but we get glimpses of the environment that produced them: the schoolhouse where the children learn to write and (if the Abu Sayyaf stop by for lunch) load guns, the burned-out rubble of the house where one of them grew up. Instead of fleeing at their approach, the residents provide them with meals and supplies; in return they hand out some of the ransom money. The leaders frequently invoke religion; do the men even know what they're saying?

With Captive Mendoza takes a purely visceral approach and leaves the intellectual work to the audience. If it does not give us a deeper understanding of the troubles in Mindanao, it reminds us that they exist. Perhaps the gut-level strategy will reanimate the discussion in a way cold, hard facts have failed to do.

On another note, this gripping, often unnerving work is the most entertaining Brillante Mendoza movie we've ever seen. This could be the one that connects the "internationally-renowned" director to the audience at home.

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