Originally published May 8, 2018
CAAMFest 36 begins its 15-day run later this week, and one of the most highly anticipated films in the line-up is the latest work from filmmaker H.P. Mendoza: BITTER MELON. The tragic comedy centers on a dysfunctional Filipino American family home for the holidays, who all plot to kill off one member in particular, for his ongoing domestic violence.
BITTER MELON has been in the works for the past two decades; beginning with a script Mendoza wrote back in 1997. However, having gone through similar experiences as portrayed in the film, he believes that it’s because he was still processing it all at the time that he wasn’t ready to properly tackle the story just yet.
“I was about 21 when I wrote it and it was just wacky,” he said. “It was only humorous, and I think that’s because I was trying to be outrageous back then. I wanted to explore the things that touched me the most.”
It wasn’t until a few years ago that he finally felt ready to take on the script.
The film is filled with metaphors, and one of them is the title itself. Mendoza always found it funny how there are so many Asian American films with food included in the title; such as CAT FISH AND BLACK BEAN SAUCE, DIM SUM, EAT A BOWL OF TEA, and AMERICAN ADOBO.
“I’ve always liked that, but I also kind of feel like there’s a slight lens of exoticism to it,” he explained. “Mainstream America kind of knows us for our cuisine, so it’s kind of pushing it forward. [BITTER MELON] is a way of saying it’s Filipino without it saying it’s Filipino.”
Bitter melon was a food his mom always served to him for breakfast, and he never liked it as much until he got older. The film’s title serves as a partial nudge to that.
BITTER MELON is coming out during the time of both the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. Asked for his thoughts on the timing and Mendoza wants to set the record straight: BITTER MELON is not about sexual harassment. It’s about toxic masculinity.
“This is my very first screenplay ever that doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test,” he pointed out. “And you know what? There is a reason: because this is a story about how men treat women.”
Toxic masculinity and how it is ingrained into the Filipino culture make for a stark intersectionality that isn’t that often explored. In fact, Mendoza made clever use of a folk song, “Lulay,” by incorporating an instrumental version of it into the film. (“Lulay” is a song about a woman’s worth.)
It’s also because of the intersectionality that many Filipino Americans in test audiences were able to connect to it.
“I think people would love to argue that this is not necessarily an immigrant story or a Filipino American story,” Mendoza expressed. “I think what makes this special to a lot of Filipino Americans who’ve already seen it is that they catch that little nuance of, ‘This is normal.’”
Creating BITTER MELON was far from a cake walk. While making the film, Mendoza was also a resident at the San Francisco Film Society, where he got to work with people much more ingrained in the industry. It was through this experience that he saw what it took to be a mainstream filmmaker, and that that is not how he wants to sell his story.
Mendoza’s collaboration with these individuals made for an effective outcome, especially in discussions where he would push back by way of his debates, where a decision would be settled within two minutes.
It was also with the assistance of ABS-CBN’s Cinematagrafo program that his budget was ten times the budgets of his previous films combined. This allowed him to get permits to film at various locations (although his tendency for wanting to film guerilla style took a while to die down).
CAAMFest is having the world premiere for BITTER MELON, and that means everything to Mendoza.
“I’d be nothing without CAAMFest,” he stated. “I’ve premiered all my movies here. It just makes sense.”
In a time where Asian Americans are still too often seen as side characters, he appreciates film festivals like CAAMFest where such characters can come to the front for a change.
There is a message that Mendoza hopes that audiences will take away from watching BITTER MELON, and no, it has nothing to do with murder. He hopes that people see the film as a metaphor for the dying breath of the patriarchy and the self destruction in male culture.
“Right now, we’re living in a very male country, again,” he explained. “A very kind of cis, hetero, white male country that felt the power slipping away from them during the Obama administration and they’re coming back full force and they’re changing the narrative. But if we do give it that power, then we are allowing them to change that narrative.
“A lot of people have been asking about a very important shot in the movie,” he added. “They’ll ask, ‘What’s with that still frame in the movie? That’s so weird.’ It’s a statement. I’m making it still because I want you to linger on it and I want you to think about what it means. And a lot of people are like, ‘But what does that mean?’ Dammit, the future is female and brown!”