SFIAAFF: Manila: the drama

› johnny@sfbg.com

Over roughly the past year, Brillante Mendoza has brought a pair of films to festivals that pack a particular one-two punch when they are programmed to play at the same event. Foster Child first bears witness to the final day that caretaker Thelma Maglangqui (superb veteran actress Cherry Pie Picache) mothers three-or-four-year-old mestizo John-John (Kier Segundo), and as sunlight gives way to night, it follows her from a Manila slum into the ostentatious hotel where she passes him over to wealthy white foster parents from San Francisco. Slingshot also uses a real-time conceit, but in an entirely different manner — locked within the mazelike alleys and shanties of Manila’s Mandaluyong City, it foregoes long takes and methodical passages to careen as if the camera were a baton passed from one preoccupied, panicky person to another. Or perhaps more aptly, as if the point of view was a valuable that one character fleeces from another’s pocket.

As a melodrama, Foster Child fits into the dominant genre of Filipino feature films that screen at international festivals — a genre that certain North American critics might enjoy more than writers such as Richard Bolisay and Alexis Tioseco, whose critical conversations are as vital to thriving "CineManila" activity as any current filmmaker. In a piece on one of Tioseco’s excellent Web sites, Criticine, Noel Vera recalls a Rotterdam screening where fellow film scholar and Chicago-based critic Jonathan Rosenbaum compared Mike De Leon’s Kisapmata (1981) to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Martha (1974). Perhaps in that spirit, Rosenbaum’s contemporary, the critic and influential programmer Tony Rayns, has likened Foster Child to Fassbinder as well.

I’d add another comparison that, however Eurocentric, is meant as a great compliment: Foster Child shares a number of similarities with Douglas Sirk’s mother of all melodramas, Imitation of Life (1959), such as a harshly ironic perspective on maternal bonds in a racist, capitalist world. When Mendoza’s film reaches its final wrenching moments — and Thelma seems stripped, at least temporarily, of life (even the future repetition of her foster maternal duties is harrowing) — a lesser director would have simply milked the pathos. Instead, Mendoza allows no mercy to invade his sympathy, presenting a sequence that calls to mind a scenario depicting Lana Turner’s selfish protests by the bedside of her dying maid Annie (Juanita Moore) in 1959’s Imitation of Life, a sight that is extra bitter because Annie’s lost daughter Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) can be seen smiling in a nearby framed picture within the shot. Foster Child‘s climactic heartbreak is set against a backdrop of vulgar department store displays that privilege white glamour and which celebrate a false vision of familiar perfection. "The house that love built," proclaims one callow ad, depicting a mother and child. The cruel gods of capitalist marketing provide perfectly horrible set design.

Those last glances, leading to a weary climb up a concrete public transit stairwell, also ricochet off Foster Child‘s sustained (and indeed Fassbinder-like) first shot: a silent, postcard-perfect view of Manila’s high-rise cityscape that gives way to a noisier look at the ramshackle slums at the feet of those skyscrapers. A more subtle echo occurs between two scenes that take place nearer to the narrative’s center: an idyllic, sunlit view of Thelma bathing John-John outside her home, and a later moment when she has to wash him in a hotel’s many-mirrored, intimidating bathroom.

Engaged Web sites such as Bolisay’s Lilok Pelikula (Sculpting Cinema) have greeted this neorealist symbolism, and Foster Child‘s standing ovation at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, with some wariness. Indeed, it is frustrating if international audiences take Mendoza’s movies for the whole of Filipino independent film today, when thanks to the punk-fueled Khavn de la Cruz, the monumental Lav Diaz, the prodigiously visionary Raya Martin, and the autobiographical John Torres, CineManila is frankly more inspired than almost all of the indie film — and much of the experimental work — currently coming from the United States. Mendoza’s talent equals or bests anyone who has passed through the Sundance factory in the past decade, but he and his more formally radical contemporaries have to vie for the same too-few spaces allocated to feature films from the Philippines at most festivals.

By working within relatively linear narrative structures and feature-length frameworks, Mendoza veers toward the mainstream currents of vital Filipino independent cinema. But he’s demonstrating great versatility. Slingshot‘s burnt-brown palette, verging on black-and-white in nighttime scenes, contrasts greatly with the more colorful, sun-dappled view of slum life in Foster Child, which is so pleasant that soap bubbles blown by children float through one shot. But it would be a mistake to see Foster Child‘s view of cramped city blocks as purely idealized, simply because a fresh array of mothers with newborn babies can be found on every corner — a scene in which foster system overseer Bianca (comedienne Eugene Domingo) greets these women and knowingly checks in on their offspring has a sinister underpinning.

Its title translated from a term (tirador) denoting a street hustler, Slingshot is harder and faster — money or valuables are frequently handed from one character to another on the sly as people move in an out of a shot that is itself moving forward. A viewer had best be on the top of his or her game while watching, because everyone in the film is on the make. But the gay Mendoza brings a subversive eye to the masculine genre of action: he knows that harder and faster might seem tougher, but it doesn’t necessarily mean one is savvier. Interestingly, while Slingshot‘s critical reception in CineManila realms seems warmer than that given to Foster Child, the film has had its share of semiblind assessments in English-language publications. More than one critic has complained that the film wears a viewer out with its frantic pace before it abruptly ends. The reviews fail to note that Mendoza frames his many-stranded story line and slum-stranded characters amid a broader view of societal and political corruption. He kicks the story off with cops raiding blocks of Mandaluyong City to round up and arrest people who are then bailed out by politicians in exchange for votes. He fades out with a glimpse of a pickpocket at work during a quasireligious campaign rally dominated by empty, clichéd speeches.

Between those crowd scenes, Slingshot joins a wide variety of characters for intimate treks through semi-anonymous acts, only to abandon them — just as fate might and a politician’s promises are certain to. Tess (Angela Ruiz) steals video equipment to pay for a pair of dentures. Her illicit lover Rex (Kristofer King) neglects fatherhood in favor of druggy reverie. In an example of tail-biting irony, the impulsive Caloy (Coco Martin, whose open-faced melancholy carries over from Mendoza’s debut feature The Masseur [2005]) needs to scrape together cash to keep the pedicab that he’s using to earn money. Meanwhile, Leo (Nathan Ruiz, the gamine title character of Aureaus Solito’s 2005 The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, now adolescent and pimply) begins what will eventually become one of the worst days of his life by accidentally getting his dick caught in his pants zipper. The two-dimensional faces of political candidates — including actor Richard Gomez, then running in real life for a Senate position — look on from the campaign billboards and posters that dominate public spaces.

In the eyes of the official system, Lopez’s Leo is the thief character of Slingshot‘s Tagalog title, but in the real world he’s just one of many everyday bandits, who are doing whatever they can to survive while a faceless upper class profits from their votes. There’s a potent undercurrent to Lopez’s performance perhaps being the titular one, though, since it’s much harsher than the similar turn he delivered as Maximo in Solito’s comparatively romantic film festival favorite. The differences in pace and look between Foster Child and Slingshot demonstrate that Mendoza is capable of sculpting widely contrasting true visions of Manila’s streets, which in turn shows that the exact same setting can take on widely varying characteristics based on one’s perspective at any given moment.

Part of Mendoza’s versatility might be grounded in his background as a production designer under the name Dante Mendoza. It also might reflect a developing, nuanced queer sensibility, one that has forsaken forebear Mel Chiongo’s eye for international markets to also produce a feature, 2007’s Pantasya, that possibly plays off of Slingshot‘s view of corrupt police forces and probably adds a critical dimension to the age-old "I love a man in an uniform" motif of gay porn. After half a dozen features as a director, Mendoza has ranged from melodrama to action, from a pentet of gay sex fantasies to a story about education amid the Aeta tribe (2006’s Manoro). His next step will probably be hard to predict, and it’ll definitely be worth watching.

FOSTER CHILD

March 14, 6:45 p.m., Kabuki

March 16, noon, Kabuki

SLINGSHOT

March 15, 7 p.m., Pacific Film Archive

March 18, 7 p.m., Kabuki

>> Complete Asian American Film Fest coverage