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H.P. Mendoza tackles domestic abuse

by Sari Staver

"Bitter Melon" director H.P. Mendoza cheers on the crowd. Photo: Courtesy CAAMfest
"Bitter Melon" director H.P. Mendoza cheers on the crowd. Photo: Courtesy CAAMfest  

As the crew scrambled to put the finishing touches on the new film "Bitter Melon," director H.P. Mendoza got some good news from CAAMfest 36, the upcoming Asian American film festival where his new film will be the centerpiece narrative. Promoters from the film festival told Mendoza that the first night of the world premiere had set a record for presales, completely selling out before the program had been announced to the general public.

"Apparently, it was a historic first," said director Mendoza, a 41-year-old gay Filipino American, in a telephone interview with the B.A.R. (At press time, tickets to the May 12 screening are at rush, while there were still tickets available for the other two screenings, May 19 at the Roxie, and May 23 at the Piedmont.)


Director of Bitter Melon H.P. Mendoza. Photo: Courtesy CAAMfest  

The new film is a "dark comedy that tackles domestic abuse, toxic masculinity, misogyny and homophobia, all told by a predominantly Filipino-American cast," according to Mendoza. It's the story of a Filipino-American family who reunite for a Christmas party at the family home in San Francisco, only to find out that the second-oldest child has been ruling the house with fear, intimidating everyone who lives there.

"What starts as a fun holiday reunion," Mendoza said, "turns into a darkly humorous crime scene as the youngest son leads the family and they conspire on how to best murder the violent and abusive sibling. What starts as a dark, wacky revenge comedy turns into an exercise in empathy, and an exploration of the cycle of violence."

"The film," said Mendoza, "brings attention to what is commonly swept under the rug. It is a necessary film for Asian American families who struggle to make sense of the traumas that often go unaddressed."

The film is in English and Ilocano, the third-most-spoken language in the Philippines, and the language of Mendoza's family. The script, which Mendoza drafted two decades ago, is based on his experiences growing up with an abusive father. "I rewrote the script with my 41-year-old brain," he said, "which gave me time to have some perspective on my family. Domestic abuse falls underneath a large umbrella of the cycle of violence begetting violence. I tried to tell a story that revealed why people do the things they do, how it affects the family, and suggest how you can try to stop the cycle.

"I've been through it," said Mendoza, who said he witnessed his mother going through a lot of abuse from his father. "My Mom is one tough cookie. She eventually divorced the bastard."

While it is too early to know how many film festivals will want to screen the film ("We start finding out in late May or June,") Mendoza is proud of the fact that "Bitter Melon" is the first film to be produced from the Filipino program Cinematagrafo, which awards grants to help ethnic Filipinos abroad tell their stories. Its funding provided half the budget, while the other half was put together by Ersatz Film, the production company owned by Mendoza and his husband Mark Del Lima, who produced the film.

Mendoza became a celebrity in San Francisco's independent film community after his first three films proved to be popular on the festival circuit. His first film, "Colma: The Musical" (2007), in which he was the writer, lyricist, composer, and actor, won a Special Citation from the SF Film Critics Circle. Three years later, Mendoza's film "Fruit Fly" won the Audience Award at the International Asian American Film Festival. And in 2014, Mendoza's film "I Am a Ghost" was named the best horror film at the PollyGrind Underground Film Festival of Las Vegas.

Mendoza and Del Lima will attend all three screenings of "Bitter Melon."

Tickets for "Bitter Melon" ($20): go to caamfest.com.


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