Around Manila with Brillante Mendoza

MANILA, Philippines - What would it be like to have filmmaker Brillante Mendoza tour you around Manila?

Photographer and “Around the World with Voyager” show host Scott Woodward found out for himself when he visited some of Manila’s iconic spots with the 2009 Cannes Best Director for the 3rd episode of the travel show on History Channel. 

In the show, the 187-foot Voyager yacht docks into 5 iconic Southeast Asian cities and meets with an “icon” who tours him around, allowing him to experience the unique vibe of the city.

If Taipei’s icon was an enterprising chef and Hongkong’s was an ex-boy-band member turned actor and director, Manila’s man is Brillante Mendoza, a filmmaker who has dedicated himself to telling the story of Filipinos with all its grit, spit, gore, color, and not-so-occasional peals of laughter. 

Just from watching his films, Mendoza’s Philippine cities are frightening.

In "Serbis," a family in Pampanga runs a prostitute service inside a dilapidated porn theater. In "Kinatay," a criminology student unknowingly joins a syndicate and witnesses the abduction, rape, and murder of a prostitute.

This is not exactly a pretty picture of a city. But Mendoza, seated in his studio and second home tells me, “My intention is not to show the ‘bad’ side of the Philippines. My intention is to dwell on the kwento, the story.”

Which is why instead of showing Woodward the “pretty” parts of Manila, Mendoza showed him the places where the most interesting stories take place, the places where his film’s stories take place.

With his enthusiasm reaching his gesticulating hands, Mendoza shares that he took the photographer to the heart of Quiapo complete with its noisy stalls, blaring karaoke machines and kids blowing bubbles in your face. They lit candles inside Quiapo church and visited a street where he shot his film "Tirador."

Another stop was his alma mater, the University of Santo Tomas, where Mendoza first realized his artistic inclinations and met many artist friends who continue to inspire him. With its hundred-year-old buildings and colorful history, the UST campus is a tourist destination in itself.

They explored parts of Mandaluyong where he shot scenes for his films "Tirador" and "Foster Child." They relaxed in his studio where Mendoza’s "secret garden” revealed his green thumb. The tour commenced with Woodward sitting in on Mendoza’s presentation for a Max’s Chicken television commercial, showing how Mendoza balances making a living through advertising and the pursuit of his filmmaking passion.

The perfect Manila guide

IN THE HEART OF MANILA. Brillante Mendoza with 'Around the World with Voyager' host Scott Woodward.

Screen grab from YouTube (jwsvoyager)

Mendoza’s films have allowed the world a peek into Filipino lives as they unfold in seedy alleys, colorful markets, and sea-side villages. This, according to Mendoza, is one possible reason he was chosen to be Manila’s icon. 

“When people see my films, they tell me, ‘It’s like I’ve been to your country. I know your people.’ They felt the energy of the people through my films,” he shares. 

The internationally-acclaimed director also fulfills another requirement for a Manila tour guide: he’s street-smart and embraces public transportation.

“I still take the jeep,” he says. “I like to observe people. I love streets and busy places.”

This is only to be expected of a story-teller who gets his stories from real people, places and events; who asserts, “Kung wala ka doon, hindi mo makukwento nang tama. Walang puso (If you’re not there, you can’t tell the story properly. It won’t have heart).”

But above all qualifiers, love of city is the most important for a city guide and, in this respect, Mendoza is overflowing. 

“I felt flattered when Scott told me he could feel how proud I am of my country. He thanked me for opening his mind, that he has never seen someone so passionate,” says the director. 

Manila’s human connection

MANILA MAN. The filmmaker in the midst of a bustling street in Quiapo.

Screen grab from YouTube (jwsvoyager)

Mendoza’s film career has taken him all over the world and he admits, “The more I see the world, the more I love my country.”

In the Philippines, especially in big cities like Manila, it’s the people who create the vibrant ambiance so close to Mendoza’s heart. When in the comparatively quieter and more organized cities of Europe, he often turns on the television or opens a window just to satisfy his need for human noises that Manila fulfills so well. 

The people of Manila, he believes, are the city’s main asset. If rural Philippine communities can boast of their white-sand beaches and majestic mountains to tourists, Manila offers its crazy, friendly, noisy people.

“We Filipinos are a very social people. Unlike in other parts of the world, we are very open to each other. There are no barriers, which can be a good thing and a bad thing.”

But Mendoza thinks visiting foreigners can benefit from this Filipino trait and the strong human connections that enliven the city and make it thrive.

“When Filipinos see foreigners, we are very hospitable and we have a desire to please. Any foreigner would appreciate that. You can be more adventurous here because it’s easier to have that kind of connection with people.”

Next movie

SECRET GARDEN. Brillante Mendoza takes in his large garden from the spot where he eats breakfast everyday.

Photo by Pia Ranada

Like a traveller keen on his next new horizon, Mendoza is already working on his next film, one that takes place in Manila.

Working for the first time with actors Dennis Trillo and Baron Geisler and bringing back his favorite actors like Mercedes Cabral, Mendoza will weave a story connecting the heavily-politicized issue of plagiarism and intellectual copy rights with the esoteric phenomenon of demonic possession and exorcism. 

The film is his latest tribute to the Manila that Mendoza loves, home to a million souls and stage for even more stories. There is no better city for a man who can only tell tales as much as he has travelled them himself.

The Manila episode of “Around the World with Voyager” airs at 11pm on January 14, Monday, on History Channel. - Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.

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