Only a brilliant and gifted director can manage to make grueling topics like domestic abuse mesh well with dry humor and dramedy. Albeit slipping out of its vision and losing its prowess at times, Bitter Melon brings a genuinely refreshing and satisfying experience on the screens of this year’s Outfest edition. It has flair, just the right amount of quirkiness and, most importantly, perspective when dealing with its dark themes. Even though it oftentimes lacks tact, H.P. Mendoza’s approach makes up by adding raw reality and crude emotions into the mix. All of this creates a seemingly haphazard movie that feels like a guilty pleasure as you watch it, but ultimately reveals more about human nature and how our psyche functions than a gravely sincere and highly nuanced drama film.
For dysfunctional families, Christmas can be the most dreaded time of the year. And for a family from San Francisco that was stifled by several abusive fathers from generation to generation, holiday dinners are precisely that: an opportunity for all hell to break loose. Declan (Jon Norman Schneider), a young man from Manhattan, and his older brother, Moe (Brian Rivera), have experienced all kinds of neglect and violence growing up, from being abandoned by their parent to having to live with an alcoholic batterer. After many years of no contact, the two decide to return to their hometown for a family reunion at Christmas time. However, once there they realize that their other brother, Troy (Patrick Epino) is physically and emotionally abusive towards his wife, Shelly (Theresa Navarro), whereas their mother, Prisa (Josephine de Jesus) unceasingly defends and rationalizes his behavior, having been a victim of domestic violence herself. As the story progresses, there is an upheaval within the family, as its members decide something needs to change and plot together to murder Troy.
Bitter Melon generally puts forth a slow-burning plot with discreet psychological elements and subtle emotional nuances that the viewer only picks up on if they shed their prejudice about the motion picture’s boorish exterior. As the viewer gets enmeshed further into the characters’ disquieting world, there are much deeper insights into taboo subjects like the root of dysfunctional behaviors and the desire for revenge. It ventures so far as to offer a muddied explanation for abuse and to showcase the shortcomings of trying to solve cruelty with more cruelty. Although it has a light-hearted and comical feel to it at first, it quickly uncovers depth, sorrow and heartrending trauma as it progresses. It becomes clear that dark humor is only a reliable means of delivering sensitive information and truth in an entertaining, original manner that keeps the audience captivated and flabbergasted.
Although its central theme is grim, the motion picture is, for the most part, rambunctious, amusing and highly entertaining. The dialogue is absurdist, banking on the most recurrent clichés that surround domestic violence and intervention. The lack of substance and real rapport between Shelly and her well-meaning friend, as well as their artificial conversations shed light on why most tactics to withdraw a victim from their abuser fall short. Moreover, the only bond between our characters is a sort of disturbed, morbid togetherness that comes about as a result of the abuse, abandonment and rejection they all experienced during their childhood. Mendoza manages to create a form of surreal humor that might not appeal to everyone, but in doing so he raises essential questions about the legitimacy of revenge, the strategies used to help victims and the long-lasting impact of a brutal upbringing lacking love and acceptance. This mix of absurd situations and bizarre incongruities also mocks the relentless quest for justice that is focused on individual punishment rather than a systemic understanding of domestic violence, discovering its root causes and being redirected more towards preemptive solutions.
Overall, Mendoza epitomizes conflict and trauma in a balderdash, overly theatrical manner. But the real project with Bitter Melon is exaggerating the defining traits of toxic behaviors, displaying and ridiculing the excesses of clinging to familial obligation in spite of blatant abuse, but also exploring feelings of isolation and how we relate to the outside world and one another based on our experiences and conditioning.