“Why don’t we kill Troy?”
“Oh Declan, that’s sick […] How would we do it?”

Perhaps it is in the very definition of family reunions, this blend of fun moments, clumsiness, awkwardness and the inescapable brooding of conflicts. As words are spoken and the first meals and drinks are served, there may be a feeling of tentative unease in the air, especially if a family’s past has not been without conflict. But then again, there just may be no family without a conflict or two hanging in the air once its members have gathered.

Maybe it is this kind of atmosphere which attracted director H.P. Mendoza to the subject. For his feature debut “Bitter Melon” the Filipino-American filmmaker relied upon his experiences with his own family, especially his coming-out as a gay man in front of them. In his statement included in the press kit for the film, Mendoza says he wanted to embrace the “sights and sounds of a Filipino household”. In the end, the script, which he had started in 1997, evolved into a piece about topics such as homophobia, bullying and toxic masculinity while he also included the comedy inherent in a family gathering of this sort.

“Bitter Melon” is screening at San Diego Asian Film Festival (SDAFF)

Although the plane has landed, there is an uneasy feeling in the air, something reminiscent of an imminent catastrophe. Declan (Jon Norman Schneider) can feel it the moment he sets foot on the ground and calls his sister, asking to be picked up from the airport. Family reunions around the holidays have a tradition of being a casual mixture of both the happiness and the nagging which define any family, but there is something else going on. His brother Moe (Brian Rivera) seems to be aware of it too, as he comes in – late as expected – only to be greeted with the angry looks of ,Troy (Patrick Epino), his second brother. And while the preparations for the dinner and the days to come are in full throttle and under the careful supervision of matriarch Prisa (Josephine de Jesus) the arrival of the other two brothers set the stage for something which soon overshadows the fun moments of the event. When Moe and Declan become aware of their brother’s violent nature, his threats and attacks on his wife Shelly (Theresa Navarro) and their daughter (Amelie Anima) they decide to do something about it. In any case, they cannot leave until they can stop Troy and make him come to his senses or put a permanent end to his outbursts.

Considering how much time Mendoza has spent working on his script the result is quite breathtaking, and also quite overwhelming at times. Fittingly described as a “cacophony”, once the family is reunited, their voices, the music, the chatter and the clatter of dishes fills the ear completing the audiovisual image of a family reunion. Even though he soon sets the first signs of conflict between the three brothers as well as Shelly and her husband, Mendoza follows a clever structure revealing the full scale of these conflicts, little by little. The mood shifts drastically – especially when the extent of the domestic abuse is shown – but organically at the same time, as if you have been somewhat aware of these events taking place behind closed curtains. However, Mendoza’s script has a few aces up its sleeve which are carefully played, much to the surprise of the audience, sometimes a bit too much to the extreme.

In any case, “Bitter Melon”, as an ensemble piece, stands and falls with the performances of its cast. Mendoza relies upon a much talented group of actors bringing this family, and their long buried conflicts, to life. Although it is quite difficult to raise one of them beyond the others, the performances of Epino, Rivera and Schneider need to be mentioned in this context. Given their character’s quite different personas, they do not shy away from the dissonances in them, for example, when Declan discovers traces of emotional abuse of his own in the way he treats former lovers or how he distances himself from his family. Epino has perhaps the most difficult task of being a person of extremes, a person who would normally be branded as the villain. However, his performance and the direction of his character deny this kind of thinking quite soon, as his materialist lifestyle cannot cover the insecurities and deeply rooted anger of his character. In the end, he has more in common with a character like Stanley Kowalski from “A Streetcar Named Desire” in the way he projects his rage onto others, but also does not know how to stop.

On a technical level, Juli Lopez’ cinematography emphasizes the brooding conflict, while also stays close to the family portrait the film delivers. Filmed largely indoors, each scene embraces the kind of (emotional) chaos which is at the foundation of the film. Perhaps one of the most essential contributions has to be Marco D’Ambrosio’s score adding the suitable undercurrent to the family drama, following each shift as well as highlighting the comedy as well as the dark tones of each scene.

In conclusion, “Bitter Melon” is a promising debut by H.P. Mendoza about a family and its conflicts. Even though the amount of topics and issues at times overload the narrative, Mendoza’s film finds back its balance, relying on its core aspects, its cast and its images. In the end, “Bitter Melon” is a well-observed movie on what defines a family, what its members laugh about, cry about and stays silent about, and, of course, what happens when these conflicts resurface.