Their Slums, Their Circus and Their Grotesquery: Khavn De La Cruz’s Mondomanila
This essay was originally published in Metro Issue 178, Spring 2013
The place just fucking smelled of cockroaches. There’s no sewage system in Manila, and people have nothing there. People with, like, no arms, no legs, no eyes, no teeth.
This is how Claire Danes described Manila after filming Brokedown Palace (Jonathan Kaplan, 1999) on location in the Philippines. The comments spurred the Manila city council to declare Danes persona non grata and to ban her films from being shown throughout the city. In Mondomanila (Khavn De La Cruz, 2012), this disparaging description is relished; splashed across the screen during the intro, it becomes prescriptive, as this low-budget feature showcases the disenchanted, depraved and disfigured characters that so repulsed Danes. Tactically, Mondomanila revels in this form of outsider disgust, elevating the real slums of Manila to fantasy; it’s an exploitation film that calls to mind the lifelong hardships endured by the real denizens of Manila’s slums.
Loosely defined, ‘exploitation’ is a label placed upon specific films with low budgets, ‘low’ subject matter and low quality that feature explicit sex, violence, nudity and drug use. During the 1970s and 1980s, due to the economically favourable – not to mention exotic – shooting conditions, many genre movies that fit this label were shot in the Philippines. The South-East Asian state provided a base for numerous US productions, with hundreds of exploitation films churned out and distributed internationally.
Not only in name, Mondomanila explicitly harks back to the history of ‘Mondo’ filmmaking: the documentary strand of exploitation movies that focus on taboo topics with pseudo intrigue. Mondo is Italian for ‘world’ and, here, the featured world is that of urban slums, documented as an easily destroyed landscape and a self-renewing community. Khavn explains this deliberate evocation: ‘The Mondo films want to show what’s supposedly real, but also play on that, what’s real, what’s not real, what’s surreal.’
Almost a myth of a man, Khavn has been dubbed ‘the most active filmmaker in the Philippines’ or ‘an ass-kicking rebel priest’. Also a writer and musician, Khavn is insanely prolific: he incessantly publishes poetry, has written a wealth of music (including for Mondomanila) and has made hundreds of feature-length and short films. But each work is ‘anti-’ in its construction. Khavn’s approach to filmmaking ‘subscribe[s] to the Reader-response theory, “the author is dead”, or in this case the director is dead’, and he credits his work with the stamp ‘This is not a film by Khavn’. The surreal nature of Mondomanila is a key trait of Khavn’s style of filmmaking generally; his constant self-denouncement evokes René Magritte’s infamous words ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’.
On many levels, Khavn acknowledges formal ties to the history of exploitation filmmaking practice. But unlike the majority of past cult flicks, Mondomanila is undoubtedly a film made by Filipino locals about locals. These slums may be a circus of grotesquery, but the film presents their slums, their circus and their grotesquery. Khavn coopts the sense of distaste in Danes’ comments by promoting waste and decay in neon lights; his film shocks and confronts the audience like any good (bad?) trash or exploitation movie should.
Based on Norman Wilwayco’s award-winning novel Mondomanila (Or How I Fixed My Hair After a Rather Long Journey), Khavn’s film is a dizzying, visceral and explosively vulgar cocktail made from a mix of the trash, musical, documentary and crime drama genres. Set in the urban slums of Manila and laced with faeces and muck, it has the power to make you feel queasy and uneasy. At the 2013 Australian premiere of Mondomanila, which was screened as part of a special event at the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival (HRAFF), there was a smattering of walkouts. But if you can stomach it, the film is worthwhile viewing. In 2012, it was one of the eleven films shown as part of a Philippine New Wave program at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. It also screened at International Film Festival Rotterdam this year, and in its homeland it won Best Director at Cinemanila International Film Festival after a rough cut was aired in 2010.
Khavn’s film relishes in demented depravity; blood, rat-like cats and bugs born out of heads give the film a nightmarish quality. Initially we’re lured into Mondomanila by a toothless, hat-wearing, carny-esque gatekeeper. Grinning, laughing and shouting in enthusiastic yet incomprehensible (hence, subtitled) English, he is Mondomanila personified. This manic man is the Mad Hatter to Khavn’s Lewis Carroll; this is Manila through the looking glass – intense, frightening and fantastical, yet also a slightly warped reflection of a reality described as Hell on Earth. Nevertheless, Mondomanila has a strong sense of humour; this film doesn’t wallow in the miserable conditions. Far from the recently popularised Western poverty porn, Mondomanila is an inside glimpse of both poverty and porn in their most literal senses. It is said that tragedy plus time equals comedy, but in Mondomanila there is no time, only layers of satire, misery, political commentary and philosophical contemplation mirrored by the piles of trash the local kids play on.
Most of the main players who populate this film are kids: a toxic mixed bag of teens who are introduced via frenetic flashcard bios that – tongue in cheek – explore each individual’s flaws and fetishes. The film’s pre-teen antihero is Tony D, the central figure of a notorious posse that includes junkies, a one-armed rapper, an effeminate gay lad and a peeping Tom dwarf. The adults who also populate these slums include a white supremacist paedophile, a drumming arsonist, a pimp dwarf and Tony D’s lonely, pregnant and licentious mother.
Following this group of misfits, Mondomanila’s plot is hard to boil down: it’s a concoction of colliding events and vignettes that are both random and calculated, innocent and perverted, as well as extremely joyous or violent. We hang out with Tony D and his ragtag pals in their decrepit squatter hideout as they crudely inhale drugs, jerk off, have sex and speak filth in each other’s presence. Buddy bonding sequences have rarely felt so claustrophobic as Khavn exposes this ritual intimacy with tight frames, oppressive angles and ceaseless camera movement to ensure we inhale this drug lair in all its excruciating sensory glory. Khavn takes advantage of the tight proximity of slum-based living quarters; in most non-musical sequences, an irrational and extreme fear is generated through a confined sense of space (or lack thereof).
Mondomanila epitomises the ‘in your face’ cultural product; the first portion of the film is like a crazed MTV music clip, and this isn’t purely the result of aesthetics, digital construct or tone. Here, plot is secondary to bizarre shock-value scenarios (such as sex with geese) and a number of musical routines. While characters are identified by their sexually deviant and unaccepted tendencies and/or physical abnormalities, they are also shown as talented survivors, living through day-to-day struggles with a fierce determination often demonstrated through their relationship with music. Aptly described as ‘Glee on crack’, Mondomanila’s musical numbers are hugely catchy and massively entertaining, attributing a glossy sheen to this gross-out film without compromising its otherwise revolting feel and focus.
For instance, watching the breakdancing dwarf pimp’s skilful performance, it’s easy to become mesmerised by his moves and forget that he’s a despicable, child-procuring figure of this underworld. Likewise, headphone-clad rapper Ogo X performs a particularly angry and powerful hip-hop number, ‘Droga’. Rapping about teen drug abuse in the slums, the oppressive cycle of poverty and the perils these people face living in squalor, Ogo X is all attitude, waving his malformed arm at the camera and in your face. This is the stand-out musical number of Mondomanila for its painfully affecting lyrical content and catchy beats. Ogo X’s vocals, accompanied by a choir of children, point fingers and ask the big questions that are far more intriguing, distracting and important than his physique.
Day-glo gay raver Naty continues this MTV aesthetic. His feminine dress and exaggerated camp presence is placed in stark contrast to his father, Sgt Pepper, Mondomanila’s resident macho man. Like the film as a whole, Naty is purposefully bombastic in his actions, dialogue, desires and dress, and is often utilised for comic relief. Forever adorned with angel wings and a ‘freak’ label (even among his own crew), Naty’s relationship with his homophobic, threatening and hyperbolically hostile father is frightening. While the exaggeration makes for an incredibly comedic series of interactions and this relationship serves as a device to propel the film’s latter revenge plot, there is an underlying sadness to it. These are the ruminative seeds that Khavn has adeptly planted in Mondomanila.
The second half of the film approaches its revenge narrative more explicitly. When his young brother returns home one night bleeding after being sodomised by the slum’s resident paedophile (an American character played by an Australian), Tony D decides to exact revenge. Here, Mondomanila does not back away from the raw, repellent realities of child abuse, as the film switches – quite extremely – to a crime drama equipped with violence, both sensational and real. Proving he’s not helpless or hapless, Tony D seeks to right the wrongs occurring in this parasitic microcosm of slum life by plotting murderous revenge. Mondomanila presents these distasteful and serious issues with shockingly brutal honesty alongside its signature absurdity. Mondomanila, however hilarious and heightened, doesn’t shy away from the confronting series of events – and neither can the viewer.
This strange realness is carried through the film; Mondomanila deftly hovers between completely bizarre fiction and upsetting fact with its references to inhumanity. Initially, we’re introduced to Tony D perched over a dirty stream, articulately waxing poetic about the dilapidated world he inhabits. Making stark and cynical observations about his destitute circumstances and the political climate relative to his life in the slums, Tony D is a talking head who seems far beyond his twelve years. The sequence is also incredibly authentic, adding to the sense of documentary realism that pervades the film, complemented by real footage (from YouTube) that bookends the plot’s fiction. Khavn explains:
The first images are of floods. There were horrible floods in Manila. That was pretty hardcore. And the images of the epilogue show the demolition of a slum, which happens quite often. That’s the way they dispose of the people and the houses when they want the property. More often than not, with the demolition there’ll be arson, they get rid of the community, but then the people come back. It’s quite absurd.
Mondomanila is a lot to digest and most of what Khavn serves up isn’t easy to swallow. Once the crude cartoon opening credits from cult comic artist Dante Perez appear, setting the erratic pace and offensive nature of the film, there’s nowhere to hide from the ultra-dense and unpredictable seventy-five minutes that follow (unless, like the more sensitive of its HRAFF viewers, you leave the cinema in disgust).
Claire Danes, quoted in Christine Spines, ‘Hey, Nineteen’, Premiere, October 1998, available at <http://www.clairedanes.com/print/premiere1098.shtml>, accessed 5 August 2013.
This mononymn is Khavn De La Cruz’s preferred moniker.
Virginie Sélavy, ‘Mondomanila: Interview with Khavn de la Cruz’, Electric Sheep, 31 July 2012, <http://www.electricsheepmagazine.co.uk/features/2012/07/31/mondomanila-interview-with-khavn-de-la-cruz/>, accessed 17 May 2013.
Alexis Tioseco, ‘Family Meals, Family Values, and Philippine Cinema: An Interview with Independent Filmmaker Khavn De la Cruz’, Senses of Cinema, issue 34, February 2005, <http://sensesofcinema.com/2005/34/khavn_de_la_cruz/>, accessed 21 May 2013 (original emphasis).
Olaf Möller, ‘Third World Hero Remix (Khavn De La Cruz)’, Film Comment, vol. 41, no. 4, July/August 2005, p. 19.
Sélavy, op. cit.
Dodo Dayao, ‘Ruined Hearts And Zombie Storm Operas: Khavn in 2012’, Lagarista, 2 February 2012, <http://lagarista.com/site/entry/ruined_hearts_and_zombie_storm_operas_khavn_in_2012>, accessed 17 May 2013.
The cast is made up of non-actors and assorted folk. The breakdancing dwarf was originally on the Philippine equivalent of Australia’s Got Talent.
Sélavy, op. cit.