Captive (First Run Features, NR)

captive_75Timing is everything in a film like this, and Mendoza does an excellent job of keeping you off balance.


On May 27, 2001, a band of the militant Islamist group Abu Sayyaf kidnapped a number of people, including several Americans, staying at the Dos Palmas Resort on Palawan Island in the Philippines. This event is the basis for Filipino director Brillante Mendoza’s 2012 feature film, Captive, starring Isabel Huppert as a French missionary (she describes herself as a social worker) who was among the captives.

Even if you remember the Dos Palmas kidnappings (which is unlikely because it was not heavily covered in American media, particularly after 9-11), you’ll be able to enjoy Captive because Mendoza focuses not on the endpoint but on the moment-to-moment experiences of the captives. He provides no introductions to characters or events, and only minimal signposts (mainly occasional chyrons documenting the passage of time) throughout the film, so that viewers have to piece together what is happening, as did the captives themselves.

Captive begins with a burst of energy, as armed militants storm the resort and force the hostages into a small boat. It’s clear from the start that the kidnapping is a money-making venture, but also soon becomes clear that the kidnappers have made a hash of it. Hoping for rich Westerners whose family and friends would pay handsomely for their return, they instead bagged an assortment consisting mainly of missionaries (one elderly) and Chinese tourists. But there’s no undoing the deed, and the fates of the captives and captors are bound together like McTeague and Marcus in Greed.

As days stretch into weeks and months, the captives are forced to march through the Philippine jungle from one rebel camp to another. Their lives are threatened mainly by gunfire during the sporadic and largely incompetent attempts of the Filipino military to rescue them (or to kill them, as one of the captives suggests, so the matter will simply be over), while the ongoing slog, tropical hazards (including leeches, scorpions, snakes) and the uncertainty of their situation also takes its toll.

Timing is everything in a film like this, and Mendoza does an excellent job of keeping you off balance. One minute one of the captors is telling a captive how to wash herself using a sari as an impromptu curtain, and the next everyone is scrambling for cover from machine gun fire. The major events of life, including birth, death, and marriage, take place as best they can. The captives start to see their captors as individuals, some of whom are more dangerous than others, and find ways to cope in an ordeal with no clear endpoint.

Huppert is the main big name in the cast, and she does an excellent job of blending into a cast that includes non-professionals as well as many actors not well known outside the Philippines. This lack of famous faces works well with Mendoza’s documentary-style approach to the story, as does Odyssey Flores’ handheld cinematography. Although occasionally political issues are raised, much more emphasis is placed on the day-to-day experience of the captives and their captors. | Sarah Boslaugh

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