‘Gensan Punch’ and ‘Resbak’: One-two punch from prolific Brillante Ma Mendoza
(First of two parts)
The pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the entertainment scene, leaving thousands of performers and production people jobless and idle.
But this month alone, Cannes-winning Filipino auteur Brillante Ma Mendoza is fielding two productions to compete in prestigious film festivals in different corners of the globe: “Gensan Punch” at the 26th Busan International Film Festival beginning this week (Oct. 6 to Oct. 15) and “Resbak” at the 34th Tokyo International Film Festival (Oct. 30 to Nov. 8).
Brillante’s Center Stage Productions has also produced a third film, Daniel Palacio’s “The Brokers,” which will vie for the top plum in the Asian Future category in Tokyo.
Like the proverbial cherry topping off his cinematic sundae, Brillante’s “Gensan Punch” has recently been acquired by HBO and will be streamed exclusively on HBO Go before the end of the year or early next year. When we heard about his many projects that are in various stages of development, we wondered where all that drive was coming from. Over Zoom last week, we asked Dante, the director’s moniker, to talk about his need to continue working at a time when it would have been convenient for him to “sit on his laurels” and just wait for the pandemic to blow over.
“There are still so many stories to tell … ang daming nangyayari sa paligid natin na kailangang ikwento,” he pointed out. “Politics has never been dirtier. It’s my responsibility, not only as an artist but also as a Filipino citizen, to continue doing what I do best—and that’s telling realistic stories that reflect what’s happening in our society. After all, who else will do this?
Social, political issues
“While it’s important for productions shown on streaming platforms to entertain their subscribers, especially now that there’s a lot of content vying for viewers’ attention, at least I manage to incorporate in my films the social and political issues that demand to be told.
“This new development [in distribution] makes me very happy because the audience of my productions is no longer limited to a niche market. It allows my movies to widen their reach. Let’s face it, I can’t make movies forever—which is also the reason why I continue to train promising filmmakers who share my vision.
“I help young filmmakers develop their ideas. I seek funding, sponsorship and grants for them. I produce their films—like “The Brokers,” Daniel Palacio’s second feature film after “Pailalim,” which won in San Sebastian. My other protégé, Raymund Ribay Gutierrez (whose “Verdict” won in Venice), is now developing his second feature.”
Asked how he managed to forge the partnership with HBO Go for the boxing drama “Gensan Punch,” Brillante explained, “My film has a distributor, whose work is to help market it to different platforms—from film festivals and theatricals (since movie houses in Europe are open) to TV and streaming networks.
“I’ve known Magdalene Ew (WarnerMedia’s regional head of content in Entertainment) even before ‘Gensan Punch.’ When she learned that I was doing a film, she asked me what it was about and I told her that it’s a boxing film.
Not resting on his laurels
“Magdalene asked if it was OK for her to see it, so I sent her a very rough copy of the film. She liked it and asked how we could proceed. So I turned over the negotiations to the London-based company responsible for the distribution of ‘Gensan Punch’—and the rest is history.”
Despite the string of formidable accolades heaped on Brillante and his films in top-tier festivals like those in Cannes (“Kinatay,” “Taklub” and “Ma’ Rosa”), Berlin (“Tirador”) and Venice (“Thy Womb”), the filmmaker refuses to rest on his laurels.
In fact, the day after we met Brillante in his swanky Mandaluyong abode last Monday, he was scheduled to leave town to shoot another film, also topbilled by “Resbak” star Vince Rillon.
As if the aforementioned titles weren’t impressive enough, Brillante is also wrapping up his much-anticipated reunion project with his erstwhile cinematic “muse” Coco Martin—a film whose story he told us about during our Zoom chat.
Does he still get nervous every time his films compete in festivals?
“Oo naman,” Brillante admitted, laughing. “It’s a natural reaction—I still get butterflies in my stomach. Your name doesn’t get you accepted at these festivals; the quality of your film does. You’re only as good as your last work.
“I still get nervous because you’re never sure if viewers will ‘get’ the message of your film. Will they like it? So, from time to time, I would invite friends from the industry to watch my movies and I get feedback from them.
“I like listening to constructive comments because that’s how you know what clicks and what doesn’t. Hindi pwedeng ikaw lang at ang mga kaibigan mo ang nakakaintindi at nakaka-appreciate sa pelikula mo.”
Our Q&A with Brillante:
How do you feel about “Gensan Punch” being shown on HBO Go?
I was really overwhelmed because it would mean a bigger audience for the film. You know how it was here in the Philippines before the lockdowns, when we could still watch movies on the big screen … if your movie isn’t “commercial,” you won’t earn anything. That has always been a tough row to hoe for indie producers like me, who has no budget for promotions. Dehado ka talaga sa labanan.
But streaming has introduced an alternative way for filmmakers to screen their movies. At the end of the day, [it’s a source of pride because] we’re showing a Filipino film to different viewers all over the world. I’m happy that streaming companies are reaching out for possible collaborations—although that’s no guarantee you’ll see my upcoming projects on streaming networks because they cater to different markets and very discerning viewers. Take Erik Matti’s “On the Job: The Missing 8”—it also has an audience because it’s an action drama.
“Gensan Punch” just happens to have a global appeal because it’s about a popular sport. It caters to a market that needs to be entertained. Add to that the idea that its protagonist (portrayed by actor-model Shogen) has prosthetic legs—which sets this story apart from the typical rise-from-the-ranks boxing drama.
The good thing is, with platforms like HBO Go and Netflix, Filipino filmmakers can now get a slice of the streaming pie. We don’t just see European or American productions in their lineup—and this is great because it levels the playing field.
What drew you to the story of “Gensan Punch”?
I met its first-time producer in film fests several times—in Cannes, in Busan, and when I became jury president in Tokyo in 2018. They’ve been asking me to do a project with them, but I didn’t think they were serious at first because I meet a lot of people at festivals who tell me they want to work with me (laughs). I said, “If you really want to do this, come to the Philippines.” So, when they did, that was when I knew they were serious about the offer. They pitched me a true story based on the life of Nao Tsuchiyama, a Japanese boxer with a prosthetic leg who went to General Santos City in Mindanao to pursue his passion for boxing and train. I said, “Hmm. Interesting!”
Then, I asked to meet Nao because I’m neither into sports nor boxing—I needed to do research. So I went to Tokyo, met Nao and a lot of other boxers, flew to his hometown in Okinawa, then went to Gen San. That’s where I found out the difference between Japanese boxers and their Filipino counterparts.
For the Japanese, boxing is a sport they pursue for honor and prestige. For Pinoys, the motivation is different. Nakita ko ang buhay nila at kung bakit malaking factor sa paglalaro nila ang kanilang pamilya. That’s what drew my attention and interest. We started developing the story thereafter.
What is “Resbak” about?Produced by Cignal, “Resbak” was shot in 2019, just before the pandemic struck. You can’t shoot “Resbak” and “Gensan Punch” now because they have a lot of crowd scenes. Some of the sequences in “Gensan Punch” were shot in Japan during the pandemic, but its crowd scenes were filmed before the lockdown.
“Resbak” follows an underground operation involving small-time motorcycle thieves. It’s very political, very violent and bloody. The story happens during the campaign period of the barangay and SK (Sangguniang Kabataan) elections, how the system corrupts the youth and turns them into dishonest politicians—mga bata pa lang, corrupt na!
It’s a big role for (lead actor) Vince Rillon, who plays beleaguered petty thief Isaac de Jesus. As an actor, Vince is very natural—he’s raw, unaffected and looks naive. It has always been important for me to give young actors like him a chance to maximize their potential—and Vince does just that in “Resbak.”
The hottest entertainment news straight to your inbox
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.