Bitter Melon is the story of a Filipino-American family who reunites for a Christmas party at the family home in San Francisco only to find out that Troy (Patrick Epino), the second oldest child, has been ruling the house with fear—intimidating everyone who lives there—including his mother, and even physically abusing his wife. What starts as a fun holiday reunion turns into a darkly humorous crime scene as Declan (Jon Norman Schneider), the youngest son, leads the family as they conspire on how to best murder the violent and abusive Troy.
H. P. Mendoza is a Filipino-American filmmaker and artist best known for his micro-budget work as screenwriter, composer and lyricist on Colma: The Musical (2007), as well as his award-winning directorial effort, I Am a Ghost (2014). Mendoza’s musical films have been dubbed “mumblechoral” by Steve Seid of Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. In 2012, Mendoza was inducted into Essential SF by San Francisco Film Society alongside Terry Zwigoff and Judy Stone. Along with his feature films, Mendoza is also known for his music in films, installations and albums, notably his second album, Nomad, re-released for its 10th anniversary in 2016 in its proper 3D audio format. H.P. Mendoza’s work can be seen at his website, hpmendoza.com.
I started writing Bitter Melon in 1997, three years after I’d come out to my family as a gay man. It was a wacky script that explored the cycle of domestic violence that existed in my family, both in the Philippines and in San Francisco, prompting people to ask me why I felt the need to laugh at these experiences. I’d say: I need to laugh at them. Because if I don’t, I’ll cry.
Over the years, I’d get lots of questions about Bitter Melon. Does the family need to be Filipino? Does the lead character have to be gay? Does the movie have to be about domestic abuse? When I’d ask why they’re asking these questions, the resounding consensus was that I could write about ONE of those things…but not all three. Apparently, as a gay man, I was a novel person. But as a Filipino gay man, I was distracting. Have you ever been told that your existence is inconveniently convoluted? You should try it; it’s fun!
Twenty years passed and I’d written a no-budget musical and directed a couple of no-budget indies, all of which featured Filipino actors and Filipino stories. But it wasn’t THE Filipino story I had sitting under my bed. I revisited the script (in ‘97, it was called He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother ) and realized how much I’d changed. I still needed to laugh, but I also now needed to cry – something my twenty year old self would not have allowed himself to do. Seeing this tome of a screenplay as an indicator of change, I changed the name to Bitter Melon , named after my least favorite food served by my family growing up. “I know it’s bitter,” my mom would say. “But it’s good for you.”
Bitter Melon may not be a musical, but it’s musical. Roshi Givechi (IDEO), once said of my films: “Whether or not you have music in your movies, your movies sing .” Rhythm and musicality are important to me as a storyteller; they’re the most universal tools for garnering empathy. In long takes, I want to bathe audiences in the sights and sounds of a Filipino household. Through the use of Ilocano, a dying language in the Philippines, I want to steep the viewer in the cacophony of a Filipino-American Christmas party. And using chiaroscuro lighting, I want to plunge you into the darkness of a house terrorized by an abusive brother.
I hope people are provoked by Bitter Melon . It’s an organic way for me to tie all of my preoccupations into one script: toxic masculinity, bullying, homophobia and domestic violence, all through the eyes of a Filipino-American family in the quickly gentrifying Mission district in San Francisco. And amidst all this, I want to make sure you laugh, too.
– H.P. Mendoza
Jon Norman Schneider as “Declan”
Jon Norman Schneider is a Bronx-bred, Filipino American actor based in New York. In 2004, Jim McKay cast Jon from an open call in his film Angel Rodriguez, opposite Rachel Griffiths. Since then, he’s appeared in The Normals, The Girl in the Book, Succession, Jessica Jones, Veep, 30 Rock, and Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Selected stage credits include Awake and Sing! (NAATCO/Public Theater), Sarah Ruhl’s The Oldest Boy (Lincoln Center Theater), and Julia Cho’s Durango (Long Wharf and Public Theater). Jon is grateful to filmmakers like H.P. Mendoza for the opportunity to give voice and visibility to characters who look like him and his family.
Brian Rivera as “Moe”
Brian was born in Sacramento and moved to San Francisco to earn his BA in Drama at San Francisco State. Rivera has performed with numerous Bay Area theatre companies and is a member of Campo Santo. He gained screen acting experience on the TV shows Cuff Me If You Can and Trauma.
Recently, Brian has been acting as “The King” in the Broadway Revival of The King & I at Lincoln Center, which won four Tony Awards including Best Revival. Rivera is currently working in the Broadway National Tour of The King & I and resides in New York City. Bitter Melon is his feature film debut.
Patrick Epino as “Troy”
Patrick is an actor, director, and producer. He starred in and co-directed the action comedy Awesome Asian Bad Guys and is finishing post-production on his dark comedy Mr. Sadman starring Scoot McNairy and Tim Kang. Patrick is the executive producer of National Film Society, a Los Angeles based production studio and YouTube channel. He received an MFA in Cinema from San Francisco State University and a BA in Sociology from the University of Chicago. In his spare time, he runs the Warriors fansite OaklandWarriors.com.
Josephine De Jesus as Prisca
Josephine is a Pinay actor, voice-talent, script-translator, dubber for films & TV commercials. She has appeared in biscuit TV commercial & some minor roles on TV soap-operas in the Philippines. She paid her way through college by voicing for radio commercials in early 70s. She is a graduate of Bachelor of Science in Commerce major in Marketing & Advertising. When she first saw the announcement on TFC that the studio was looking for some actors for a mother role, Josephine said she felt in her heart that that role was really for her! She is married to Jun de Jesus, a former actor-singer in Manila & owns a live-band that plays here around the Bay Area.
L.A. Renigen as “Tiva”
L.A. is a Los Angeles based Writer, Actor and Producer. She is known for her work in H.P. Mendoza’s films Fruit Fly, I Am a Ghost (Producer) and the Independent Spirit Award Nominated Colma the Musical. She also hosted the Comcast food show, LaLa, with H.P. Mendoza, profiling Asian Chefs and Restaurants in the Los Angeles area, produced by the Center for Asian American Media. She graduated from SF State with a BA in Theatre Arts, and was also a Resident Artist at Bindlestiff Studios, a Filipino American Performing Arts Center.
Theresa Navarro as “Shelly”
Theresa is a Pinay actor, cultural worker and Independent Spirit Award-nominated producer. Her recent credits include Yes, We’re Open, Daylight Savings and Advantageous. Bitter Melon marks her fourth collaboration with H.P. Mendoza. Theresa currently works with pioneering media arts nonprofit American Documentary, producer of award-winning series POV on PBS and America ReFramed on WORLD Channel. Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, Theresa holds undergraduate degrees from UC Riverside and completed her graduate work at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. She is based in Brooklyn with her husband and young daughter.
Mark Del Lima – Producer
Mark Del Lima is a designer, producer, and content strategist creating narrative and visual content for nearly every medium, including educational toys like Leapfrog and the LucasArts games like Star Wars Starfighter and Racer Revenge. He co-founded Ersatz Film (with H.P. Mendoza) in 2007, producing three feature films, Fruit Fly (2010), I Am a Ghost (2014), and Bitter Melon (2018).
Brian Benson – Producer
Brian Benson is an award-winning producer and assistant director with over three-dozen films under his belt, including Sorry to Bother You, Howl, Dolores, Diary of a Teenage Girl, and Haiku Tunnel, for which he was awarded the prestigious Sundance Producer Fellowship. Apart from co-producing, Benson also acted as assistant director on Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You and is currently in post-production for the tenth musical installment of his “Cousin Wonderlette” series, Eat the Rainbow.
Michael Oberst – Producer
Michael is a producer and writer from San Francisco California. He’s known locally as a commercial production manager and line producer, but has recently begun to make the jump into film and television. Bitter Melon is his first feature film as a Producer, but since then has produced one other feature and recently joined Adam Savage as a producer on the new Mythbusters.
Juli López – Cinematographer
Juli is a Cinematographer and co-founder of Free Range Puppies, a multicultural hybrid production company working on projects that power social good. Prior to FRP, Juli worked at Goodby Silverstein & Partners as in-house cinematographer for YouTube, Google, Cisco, Cheetos, Xfinity, and Adobe accounts. Over the course of over 20 years, creative visual storytelling has been at the core of his work, which has been awarded and nominated at over 100 film and advertising international festivals.
“AN INDIE MASTERPIECE.
An absolutely beautiful movie about
how monsters are created.”
– Tim Sika, San Francisco Film Critics Society
There’s an assertive authorial voice and panache of execution that makes “Bitter Melon” worth rooting for.”
– Dennis Harvey, Variety
“H.P. MENDOZA DELIVERS A GEM
of an “I’ll be home for
Christmas” family dramedy…”
– David Lamble, Bay Area Reporter