Recipient of one of the more controversial Cannes Best Director awards of recent memory (for "Kinatay," a film we found problematic, to say the least), Filipino director Brillante Mendoza returns to screens and to the festival circuit with "Captive," which marks, if not a departure from his previous style, then a welcome evolution of it. Based on real events, it is an account — by turns thrilling, moving, and harrowing — of the kidnapping ordeal of a group of holidaymakers from a resort in the Philippines; an ordeal which lasts over a year for some. It is as though, conducted by the lightning rod of a dramatic, dynamic narrative (something his previous films can be accused of lacking), Mendoza's style is finally harnessed, channeled and focused, delivering a jolt of electric authenticity that sends currents of immediacy coursing through the film’s veins.
In this endeavor he is helped by yet another fine, egoless turn from Isabelle Huppert (somehow "performance" feels like the wrong word, so completely naturalistic does it feel), but really it's no more than he gets from his whole cast — professional actors and amateurs alike. That he achieves this effect by, to a certain extent, actually subjecting his players to many of the hardships and discomforts that real-life kidnap victims in similar circumstances might undergo is obvious. But that's not to say there is any sense of a "Tropic Thunder"-style "just drop 'em in the jungle and film what happens" approach. There is real authorial intent here, as demonstrated in deliberate framing and editing, and controlled stylistic flourishes that mostly serve to enhance rather than detract from the film's feeling of realism.
And yet the story begins with a sequence as close to an action movie as we’re ever likely to see from Mendoza. A group of foreign and local holidaymakers, strangers to one another, have the calm of their vacation shattered in the night by a group of Muslim extremist guerillas known as Abu Sayyaf. Kidnapped for reasons political, religious and financial, and held for ransom, the captives respond in different ways to their situation, cycling through emotions, forming and dissolving bonds with each other and with their captors, some being arbitrarily killed, others raising their ransom and being released, still others existing in a limbo of dread and prolonged marches through the jungle. Meanwhile, over the two-hour running time we get to know the captors too, enough to have them be differentiated, but never so much they become sympathetic. Objectivity is not Mendoza’s aim, nor even really the vicarious subjectivity of seeing through someone else’s eyes. Mendoza seems to want us to look through our own eyes, and see the world he presents almost unmediated: if his actors are to experience firsthand what is it to be a captive, then so, it seems, are his audience.
On very rare occasions, though, the carefully maintained illusion of authenticity slips, and we actually feel Mendoza directing us to make thematic connections. The film features a Christian burial and a Muslim one, and while they happen at different times, both are shot exactly the same way, as though we are being nudged unsubtly towards drawing some otherwise unsupported conclusion about how, "Hey! We’re not so different after all!" Similarly, the use of the hokey camera screen at one point (a black border and a red REC in one corner) is an unnecessary distraction from what is truly a powerhouse acting scene. When the veil falls like this, we are jarred back into remembering we are watching a fiction and that events on screen, for all they have felt organic, have been arranged just so. Thankfully, these instances are rare and the majority of the picture so skillfully realized that we are soon immersed in the experience once again.
And it is an experience. What Mendoza has brought into being here is not remarkable for the ideas it espouses or the intellectual sophistication of its themes. Instead it is noteworthy because seldom does a film exist so successfully on such a visceral, moment-by-moment level. Perhaps there are viewers who will wish for more from it, more cud to chew on after the fact, but the purity of the film’s intent to simply submerge the viewer in the moment, and its consistent success at doing just that, is immensely admirable in its own right. The film starts with the kidnapping and ends the instant the kidnapping itself has ended, with nobody getting any back story or any epilogue. And so it is revealed that this is not the story of a person, or even a group of people or an event, it is simply the story of an experience: of what happened, how it felt, and what happened next.
So there is little philosophy here, and perhaps the effect of the film, being visceral and immediate, is largely transient. It’s true that its pleasures are readily available and don’t require gymnastic levels of intellectualization after the fact to appreciate or, if we dare write that dirty word, be entertained by. The fact that “Captive” is not difficult to get caught up in, and not difficult to puzzle out, may make it a poor film to those who equate "difficult" with "good." And no doubt those who hailed the boring-boring-shocking-boring rhythm of “Kinatay” as some sort of avant garde genius masterstroke will be disappointed that Mendoza has, in the sense of including a story and allowing new things to happen from one scene to the next, gone mainstream. But in bringing his observational style to heel at the service of a discernible narrative, Mendoza has actually managed to invigorate both a potentially tired story, and his own potentially tiring tendencies, and to create a work of urgency you live, rather than watch. [A-]