The title of Brillante Mendoza’s latest film, Taklub is a shortened name for the area at the epicenter of the devastation left behind in the aftermath of super typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) — Tacloban. But the alternative title, Trap, is a more telling metaphor for the survivors of the typhoon.
Opening with a tent fire within a relief city set up for survivors of the storm, we see a whole family is trapped within, unable to escape whilst their neighbours frantically try to douse the flames. The wails and screams of agony rise above and penetrate the thickening smoke. They all die except for dad who who is away tending to his boat. Not only does this set the scene of tragedy but it also reveals the lack of resources that this temporary town has at its disposal. The human spirit of the people who live within it offer just a taste of the anguish of their everyday life too — to have survived the typhoon only to be devoured by flames.
Mendoza punctuates his metaphor by opening with this tragic irony, presenting a portrait of those who survived the aftermath. This is the life of a devastated community waiting to be relocated, waiting for life to be returned to normal, waiting in vain for promised relief beyond daily rations and a canvas roof over their heads. They live with the guilt of a survivor, the fear of the next storm bringing a new tsunami and the want of life’s basics and wanting a place that they can call home.
Although Mendoza received financing from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Taklub is not a whitewash of the living conditions of the survivors — it is gritty realism with honesty and sorrow. Mendoza has stayed true to his style of filmmaking without fear of selling out by having told this particular tale.
After the opening sequence, Taklub shifts its focus onto mother Bebeth and her daughter who pick up the pieces of their broken family. The father has disappeared and the other children perished in the typhoon. Her only memorial to them is a set of portrait cups and a mass grave site. She patiently waits for DNA testing to confirm that the bodies of her children in fact lay at that site but must track down the father so that he can give his DNA. He too is a broken man, physically and emotionally.
They are amiable to each other but the unsaid is that they cannot live with each other after the storm. Why exactly is left up to audience interpretation. After more than a year of waiting, devastating news comes to light: her children are not buried at the site she has been visiting for so long. But where? Her anger has no target, her anguish is directionless, she is awash in guilt and grief.
Nora Aunor plays Bebeth and this is not her first time working Mendoza — she had also lead the acclaimed Thy Womb (2012) and she too is somewhat considered Filipino royalty when it comes to film. Her portrayal of the aggrieved mother is central to Taklub’s success.
What could tip over into the world of insensitivity and exploitation — or even propaganda considering the film’s financing from the government — is instead an intense observation of the emotional damage that far exceeds the physical devastation of the storm. And mind you, this is set in a town that was utterly wiped out by the winds, rain and waves. She steers her character with an even keel, allowing the anguish and despair to ooze out and penetrate the viewer. Mendoza’s filmic style is very akin to documentary so the two together make for a very compelling but heart wrenching struggle.
It is more than just handheld camera that achieves Mendoza’ realism. It feel like as though the camera has an acute awareness of humanity; it turns and moves exactly the way it should, the way we would. It is this shot selection along with the naturalistic style he evokes from his actors that lead to a sense of realism and immediacy that lend his films and stories a rare integrity.
Mendoza has won major awards in the past including being the only ever Filipino to win Best Director at Cannes for Kinatay (2009). With Taklub, which screened earlier this year in Un Certain Regard at Cannes, Mendoza continues to proudly fly the Pinoy flag and his unaffected, low budget style of filmmaking, has helped to create an intimate, empathetic observation of surviving the trauma after such a massive disaster.