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.