Although Filipino director Khavn de la Cruz has made 33 feature films and 100 shorts, British festivals have tended to ignore his prolific and provocative output. The Edinburgh Film Festival rectified that oversight in June, providing the opportunity to see de la Cruz’s latest, Mondomanila, as part of a welcome focus on the vibrant cinema of the Philippines.
A joyfully outrageous slice of life in the slums set to a punky soundtrack, Mondomanila is a slap in the face of Western expectations of politely miserabilist depictions of the downtrodden. A hyper kinetic, super stylised wild carnival of the destitute, it follows a midget, a one-armed rapper, a ‘day-glo fairy’, a disabled pimp and their friends as they try to get as much sex and drugs as they can (‘the only solution to their problems’, we are told by main character Tony at the beginning) and tackle a racist white paedophile. A toothless showman opens this exuberant bad taste spectacle, promising something horrible and creepy, but the Mondo-style shockumentary aspect is underpinned by the crude reality of life in Manila, making the film vital and energising.
Virginie Sélavy talked to Khavn de la Cruz at the Edinburgh Film Festival in June 2012 about joyful poverty, black comedy, midget bars and Filipino cinema.
Virginie Sélavy: The title seems to refer to the Mondo films of the 1960s. Is that why you called it Mondomanila?
Khavn de la Cruz: Initially it was just a sound. I’ve always wanted to make a film with the word ‘Manila’ in it in homage to the two films considered the best in the Philippines, Ishmael Bernal’s Manila by Night (1980) and Lino Brocka’s Manila in the Claws of Light (1975). And that was the best combination I could think of.
But there is an element of the Mondo films in your own work.
Of course, yes. 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. So there will be expectations and some will be met and some will not, and I also like to play with that.
You start and end the film with images that appear to be real.
Yes, they’re from YouTube. 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.
You bookend the film with those two sets of images that are real, but after the flood images you start the story with a toothless showman that seems to imply that what follows is not real, but a spectacle about the slums.
Yes, it’s like a circus. He’s also like a tour guide.
What’s the relationship between fiction and reality in the film?
The film is based on a novel by Norman Wilwayco, but it’s very different. Originally it was called How I Fixed My Hair after a Rather Long Journey, but I used Mondomanila so it’s also called Mondomanila now. It’s very naturalistic, very realistic.
Is the novel famous in the Philippines?
Cult-wise and critically yes because it won the main literary prize.
You have a lot of characters who are deformed or disabled in your film.
In the novel they’re not like that.
Why did you choose to have those characters in your film? Does it reflect reality or is it an exaggerated version?
Yes, it also reflects reality. I think both physically and psychologically, they’re all amputees and midgets in some way – we’re all freaks. It’s the whole circus vibe, the whole black comedy perception of reality.
Where did you find the actors?
I had wanted to make this film for 10 years. At some point a casting director was interested in helping me, so I gave him my cast of characters and he said, ‘you don’t need a casting director, you need a pimp and a circus man!’ A few of them, the one-armed rapper and the breakdancing pimp came from a TV show in the Philippines called ‘Talented Filipinos’, which is a freak show. It’s like Britain’s Got Talent, but freakier. I saw a clip later of the armless rapper, Ogo X, he was actually not just rapping during the show but also painting with his feet! I could have made a great poster. I had cast midgets in my other films, I get them in this place called Hobbit House. It’s a bar in Manila, in which all the workers are midgets, the waiters, the cooks, the bouncers, everyone, it’s like a family business. That’s where I auditioned. The lead actor was in another of my films, a collaboration with Copenhagen called Son of God. It’s about a midget Christ, and at one point he was interviewed by a paper about the setting up of a midget colony in the Philippines! I don’t know how that progressed.
Obviously, there are a lot of shocking things in the film, sex with animals, a paedophile, etc. Is it your intention to shock or is it part of the comedy? How do you intend your audience to react?
I don’t know. What did you think?
It seemed to me that the shocking aspect of the film was a way of dealing with the shocking realities of the slums and I liked it because the characters are not presented as victims, instead they appear full of energy and life and they are interesting because they are so unique. And I also liked the dark comedy and found it very funny.
Yes, I have to say that I’m really into black comedy. To answer your question, it’s all of the above. It is to shock, to inspire, to have fun, to cry, to be moved, every possible reaction, in any which way. It’s the same joyful poverty in Squatterpunk. It’s a documentary we made it in 2007. It’s a black and white silent film with an 80-minute punk soundtrack. There’s been a slum sub-genre in Filipino cinema started by Lino Brocka, and most of the films are depressing tear-jerkers, but Squatterpunk is saying, this is life and we’re enjoying it, we’re managing. It doesn’t just deal with poverty, it also deals with happiness, it doesn’t matter if you don’t have money in your pocket, you can still be happy.
Is it for the same reason that you end Mondomanila with a brightly coloured musical sequence?
Singing in the Rain! The original plan was to have a really happy ending. They are able to escape the slums with all the money that they got. And we wanted to end with a very colourful musical mob dance type of show.
It’s a bit like a dream.
But it’s also real. Physically, literally they’re getting out.
The music is very important in the film and you wrote and performed the soundtrack.
I compose most of the soundtracks in my films. Originally with Mondomanila, I wanted to make a Bollywood film, a rock opera, a musical. I composed a libretto, but we decided not to make that kind of version, with a complete song and dance after each major sequence. So it became this soundtrack.
Some of the music is quite punky. Would you say Mondomanila is a punk film?
Yes, but maybe not intentionally. People have always labelled me punk, and in terms of spirit, definitely, but it’s not literally punk.
Visually it’s very stylised, you use colour and black and white, photo-montage, split screens, etc. Why did you decide to use so many different types of images?
It’s like acupuncture, you want to hit all the points! Of course, you can appreciate a film that is plain, simple, one tone throughout. But with this kind of film it needed something very eclectic, a mash-up aesthetic, as if each sequence was made for a different film by a different director.
You also have brilliant animated opening credits.
It’s done by the production designer, Dante Perez. He’s a cult comic and visual artist. He’s a friend but I didn’t know he made those crazy comics. When I saw them I said he should make the opening credits. And sure enough he made a terrific credit sequence.
You’ve made a documentary about the Filipino new wave, subtitled ‘This Is Not a Film Movement’, which also screened at the festival. Do you consider yourself part of this new wave?
Yes, because it’s not a movement! We can all be part of it!
Do you feel there is a common sensibility, spirit, or style?
It’s inevitable to have overlaps, we live in the same country, most of us are based in Manila, at some point there is definitely some intersection. The Filipino new wave is more like the digital revolution. This definitely didn’t happen before, even though the spirit and the talent were already there. In the 80s, there were wild, crazy films that were made, but just shorts. No one was able to make a feature. And they were very limited in terms of budget, they could not really express themselves. With digital, they can shoot anything and really take risks.
Interview by Virginie Sélavy
For more information on Mondomanila and Khavn de la Cruz, please go to his website.
The multi-talented Khavn de la Cruz also performed at the Edinburgh Film Festival with his band The Brockas, which included fellow Filipino Emerson Reyes and festival director Chris Fujiwara on that occasion. They scored Manuel Conde and Lou Salvador’s 1952 Gengis Khan, which was one of the first Filipino films to be shown in the UK (and was shown in Edinburgh in the 1950s).