Foster Child begins with an establishing shot of the Manila skyline divided into three blurred strata. A crystalline blue sky hangs suspended, as if propped up by tent-pole skyscrapers, whose feet are shrouded in congee-colored smog. Below lies a shantytown, ramshackle hovels anchored at a profusion of angles like grubby quartz fingers. After a held-breath eternity, shot becomes symbol, as the camera tilts downwards, revealing the sprawling human tumult that is the city’s outskirt slums. With this clear-eyed and simple shot, director Brilliante Mendoza shows the moneyed elite living literally on top of those who scrabble to get even a meager purchase on life. Tilting down to view the depths of poverty, the image contains everything there is to say about class in the Philippines, all in one guileless camera movement. How is it then, that a film graced with such an astute opening salvo, is initially unable to captivate in its wake?
Any number of contemporary directors maintain a Bazinian “faith in reality,” most of whom grace the international festival circuit, but I’ll be damned if I can summon a cogent, all-encompassing rubric that would explain why certain work is rarefied (invariably Kiarostami, the Dardennes brothers) and others, less-so. The reason is as ephemeral and elusive as cotton candy: in that tasting moment, the allure is all too clear, but come time to articulate with intellect, words dissolve on the tongue. Whatever the alchemy, the first hour of Foster Child doesn’t seem to have it. Mendoza follows a social worker down the shantytown’s alleys, finally arriving at Thelma (one of the SFF’s great monikers, Cherry Pie Picache), who has taken John-John, a Mestizo orphan, into her care. Alternating between intimate handheld footage and distanced tripod scenes, Mendoza surveys impoverished daily minutiae with discretion, however there’s an ineffable veil cast between action and emotional. The 35mm photography is too polished for conveying immediacy, yet not nearly glossy enough to ascend to hardship lyricism..
There are reasons why I never walk out on a film (I haven’t given up on any theater screening before or since One Hour Photo), and Foster Child is vindication. When Thelma moves out of the slums and into bureaucracy, Mendoza really finds stride—and his subtle opening act realizes its payoff. Under his depiction, the foster care system in the Philippines is a queasy pact of charity and financial necessity. Orphaned kids find temporary sanctuary with poor, paid carers, who raise them until the age of three or four, at which time they find permanent homes with often wealthy, invariably foreign foster parents. Thelma moves toward that awful separation moment, quiet as is proper for such places; she reverses the film’s opening movement and ascends one of those stalagmite skyscrapers to pass her adopted son onto an American couple. Upon entering into a hotel room so opulent it borders on indecent, Picache shows a wide-eyed bewilderment—disbelief that anyone could be allowed to live like this; joy at her charge’s deliverance; a slowly disintegrating wall set against grief—that makes for the SFF’s greatest moment thus far. In that instance, slack-jawed revelation: what’s past is prologue. Mendoza’s blank and seemingly unremarkable first-half documentary is an imperceptible strengthening of the bond between mother and child, showing no difference between adopted or natural kinship; Foster Child’s softly potent climax couldn’t have come without it. When that bond is severed, Thelma is absolutely wrecked, and the film breaks in sympathy with her. She wanders out into the night, ashen with sorrow, unsteady, and barely able to find her way home. No doubt as she has before, and will again when her next assignment comes to an end. Foster Child doesn’t debase itself with ham-fisted outrage, yet it’s ineluctably clear that the transaction—a modest monthly wage for cycles of perpetual heartache—is a poor one indeed.—JAMES CRAWFORD