Bitter Melon is a “home for the holidays” dark comedy where a Filipino-American family plots to kill an abusive member.
Declan (Jon Norman Schneider), a gay twenty-something Filipino is returning home for the holidays. His older brother Moe (Brian Rivera) is flying in from Philadelphia and meeting him there as the two plan to connect with family in San Jose after years of absence. The latest film from writer-director H.P. Mendoza is the story of an estranged family under siege from within at a time when they should be happy at a reunion. Throw in a little bit of domestic abuse, some crime elements, and you have what is at once a wonderful and problematic example of independent filmmaking. Sometimes things work, sometimes they don’t.
Declan and Moe arrive home and their mother Prisa (Josephine de Jesus), immediately begins feeding them. They discover that their middle brother Troy (Patrick Epino) has moved back home with his wife Shelly (Theresa Navarro) and teenage daughter Mina (Amelie Anima). Of course, it’s only a matter of time before it is discovered that Troy has since adopted his long-lost father’s habit of physical abuse and takes it nearly every petulant frustration out on his wife. As Declan makes discovery after problematic discovery, he soon realizes that he may be the sanest of the bunch and their only hope.
“…an estranged family under siege from within at a time when they should be happy at a reunion.”
I loved Bitter Melon as much as I disliked it. For a movie about family, I suppose that Mendoza nails that particular dichotomy with genuine expertise. This story of a Filipino-American Christmas reunion seems to effortlessly breeze through the more observant, absurd scenes while screeching to an awkward halt in others, not sure how to handle things. There are moments of razor-sharp observational humor that are painfully funny, the opening scenes notwithstanding. Yet when the film switches gears and gets a bit more serious, then shifts again, to a more absurdist tone, the performances and stylings get muddled. Mendoza is willing to take some risky chances, but half the time he hasn’t the skill to pull it off.
There are scenes of utter brilliance and honesty, then clunky scenes of melodrama the next. The plot that exemplifies why we love independent cinema. We are off the rails where anything could happen and the story is at once cliché and bracingly original.
“…scenes of utter brilliance and honesty, then clunky scenes of melodrama…”
The performances are, across the board, solid. Schneider plays a wonderful straight man (no pun intended) to the insanity around him. He grounds the film and serves as our moral compass as things get crazy. Epino plays Troy as a menacing man-child eager to strike out against those who threaten his domain. For the most part, he is exactly what is needed.
As we see Mendoza evolve as a filmmaker, we are watching a talent develop. Thank gods he is not only willing to take chances, may even fail a little, but he is also clearly very capable of pulling off some solid storytelling even if his skill set hasn’t caught up to his story development.
Bitter Melon (2018) Written and directed by H.P. Mendoza, Starring Jon Norman Schneider, Brian Rivera, Josephine de Jesus, Patrick Epino.
5 out of 10 stars