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Cherry Pie Picache,
Foster Child (2007), Philippine director Brillante Mendoza's fourth film since his 2005 debut (Masahista), documents foster mother Thelma's (Cherry Pie Picache) last moments with her latest charge, 3-year-old John-John, before he's adopted by a rich American family. Like his other recent films (Tirador, Manoro), its filmed in what's becoming his signature style: a low- budget digital barrio vérité with long, raw takes.
Opening credits fade in and out on a lush, blue Manila sky high above barely-visible skyscrapers at the bottom of the screen. As the music and words fade out, the camera lowers its gaze down to the slums below
a concrete statement on the vast class division in the Philippines,
and in the Third World in general.
The living conditions are wretched but the people are lively and undeterred. I haven't been back to the Philippines in over 20 years, but the film triggered some vague memories of a loud, chaotic, crowded place. Mendoza's approach is effective, almost to a fault. The hand-held shakiness and unfiltered sound mixing - you can barely hear the actors speak with all the background noise - detracts from the straightforward narrative.
But it also immerses more effectively than a cleanly filmed and edited work like Magnifico (2003) or traditional Neo-realist fare. For nearly an hour, the first act is a narrator-less documentary. We see a long, unedited shot following Bianca, a social worker from the foster agency, walking through the barrio, navigating through stairs and alleys, talking with residents, children running past her. Mendoza also indulges in long stationary takes, such as a 4-minute shot of Thelma giving John-John a bath outside with a bucket and a tabo or a long silent shot of Yuri preparing dinner. Fascinating if you have the patience but excruciating if you prefer montage.
In Mendoza's films, politics are neither hidden nor overt, looming like a shadow in the background. Tirador, a story about petty thieves, could also be read as an indictment of Philippine politicians, whose posters and campaigns were ever-present, though never figured fully into the narrative. Similarly, Foster Child has its subtle statements, such as the film's final act, which takes place in the Shangri-La hotel. Yes, Virginia, there is a connection between the poverty we've seen for the first hour and the ASEAN conference being held at the same hotel.
Foster Child has more narrative than Tirador (I reviewed its SIFF screening here) and less pretense than Kaleldo (2006). Some might call Mendoza's style sloppy and lazy, but for someone like myself who hasn't been back in a while, no other contemporary director captures the chaos of the Philippines and its people like him.
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