Foster Child (Brillante Mendoza, 2007)
Brillante Mendoza got most of the details of that relationship between foster families and their part-time children right --- that intricate emotional weight of separation and the almost ridiculous instancy of replacing a loved ward with another one. He gives us the last day of half-breed orphan John-John (Kier Alonzo) in the care of the Maglanqui's, a foster family living deep in the heart of the slums (quite curiously bereft of bad elements that absent the visually depicted grime and slime, it's one happy wonderland --- very different from the slums of Lino Brocka or even that of Auraeus Solito's Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, 2005)). Nothing much happens in that last day; those looking for tearjerking performances would have to stand lengthy "real-time" sequences before being rewarded with one. Those who have persisted through Mendoza's Masahista (The Masseur, 2005) or Manoro (The Teacher, 2006) are more suited to last the prolonged moments of banality.
What Mendoza lacks in confrontations he makes up with symbolisms. His opening credits appear in a clear blue sky displaying the skyscrapers of Manila; he then pans down to reveal acres and acres of the slum land centering on the tin roof (which doesn't merely serve as protection against the sun and the rain, but is also an extension of the house) of the Maglanqui shanty. It's a blunt yet effective portrayal of that blatant social divide, and the film subtly tackles that subject. There's an abundance of children in the film (in the slums, orphanage, streets, even in the hotel suite) and it is played as both an equalizing and a separating factor between social classes. The entire film plays as an awkward meet-up between the poor and the rich; it starts in the meager Maglanqui household and ends in the posh district of the city.
Mendoza's fault I believe is that he is quite tacky with his artistry; he concerns himself with these visual metaphors to the detriment of subtlety and grace (his montage in Masahista wherein the main character's service to a naked client is juxtaposed with the same character's dressing up of his father's corpse; or almost everything in hyperbolic Kaleldo (Summer Heat, 2006)). Fascinatingly dispassionate and controlled, Manoro is the first film of his that I completely liked. It is a film where nothing happens for an hour or so (just an Aeta girl and her father traversing the wilderness to look for her grandfather to force him to vote), but it is complete in its message, which I thought was politically mature yet very human.
Foster Child is a film I liked, but with a lot of reservations. It is sloppily filmed. The "real-time" mechanics weren't effective as there were sequences of inactivity that never added anything in the emotional investment. One example is when the younger Maglanqui son Yuri (Jiro Manio) is shown preparing noodles for his family (three or so minutes that flew by without contributing anything worthwhile). These sequences, I believe, aren't details but are results of laziness or laxity of Mendoza; to defend these sequences with "real-time" style is untenable as cinema, like poetry, should be a dense art form wherein every scene (or stanza) should count, should contribute to the culminating themes. Also, at times, the film feels so much like a pamphlet for fostering (it's not that I disapprove of it, but there are more subtle ways of showing the benefits of such charity).
Ralston Jover, writer of the film, is the true auteur in the entire crew (including Mendoza whose filmography ranges from queer fare to other specialties) of the film. Jover also wrote Manoro and Jeffrey Jeturian's much-lauded Kubrador (The Bet Collector, 2006). His scripts are always about ordinary men and women with extraordinary professions (an Aeta schoolgirl whose task is to teach her entire tribe how to write for the upcoming elections; a woman whose livelihood is to collect bets in an illegal numbers game; a mother who takes the burden of temporary caring for children not her own).
Moreover, his characters are always in a state of getting lost, both emotional and physical (the schoolgirl wanders endlessly in the wilderness yet is unable to find her grandfather in time for the elections; the bet collector, in one scene, gets lost in the labyrinthine slums). In this film, foster mom Thelma (a wondrous Cherry Pie Picache) with her son gets lost in the hotel right after delivering John-John to his wealthy adoptive parents in a classy suite in the end of the film. True to Jover's sensibilities, the physical loss coincides with the myriad of emotions within the character. Thelma's penultimate breakdown simplifies the continuing minutes of mundanity and banality: that there's always emotional pain in every occasion of separation no matter how used a foster mother is in losing her ward. Admittedly, I was moved.
But Foster Child seems to be my least favorite among Jover's three filmed scripts. It doesn't have Kubrador's fatalist philosophies (also very well-directed by Jeturian) or Manoro's surprising indignation of the impracticality of modern democracy. It is certainly Jover's most scattered script (probably also due to Mendoza's relaxed direction). Philippine cinema is always criticized as having good directors who do not have good stories to tell. If the criticism is indeed true, then Jover is one unpolished gem Philippine cinema is in dire need of.