The film may on the surface be uneventful. Thelma Manlangqui goes about her errands as mother and wife on a typical morning, with the banal bustle that attends the ritual, except that her family, with husband and two sons, is quite exceptional. In their split-level shack in the belly of the city, she takes care of a foster child, whom the government had entrusted her; the boy named John-John would soon be handed over to American parents who had sought him for adoption. The film revolves around this event, beginning with the descent of a social worker into the depths of the slums to the moment when Thelma hands his charge over to his new parents in a posh hotel that does not only offer stark contrast to the squalor of his origin; it becomes the site of a deeply touching and troubling instance of cinematic experience in which the foster mother’s world falls apart in a skyscraper of marble baths.
The event, therefore, ceases to be a mere element of the plot. It is an event that takes in a sense of the total, the totality of society inscribed in a fairly straightforward sequence of incidents that seems to happen in a day, in a singular stroke. We say this because such an everyday circumstance translates into a consequence of historical forces congealing to produce precisely an event of this nature, with contradictions of class, gender, and race playing out to generate exemplary pathos and profound perturbation.
And this operates not merely in terms of discourse, but aesthetically as well. The ethnographic approach of director Brillante Mendoza intimates a stalking effect that threads us through the social thickness of what may appear to be everyday routine. It surfaces for us an aspect of life as it settles like sediment of a residual socio-economic system. On the other hand, it gestures toward a passage from the hovel to Manila’s highways and on to that transient station called a hotel. And then this: the final crash of maternal sentiment when Thelma realizes that her “son” had been taken away and that she could not do anything about it, a chronicle of a loss foretold but likewise a tale of the devout wish of wistful belonging, indeed a reversal and deferral of maternality. At this point, melodrama flirts with melancholy, tragedy with the realism of soap opera, an uncanny liaison that takes us to the most fraught of ties, the most alienating of emotions, and an emergent tone and terrain of affection.
The critical scene, and the episode that renders the film thoroughly cinematic, is when Thelma takes John-John, whose diuretic urge had intensified that day presumably because of stress, to the hotel bathroom. Here foster mother and foster child find themselves alone, confined to the affluence of a suite, the fixtures of which they do not know how to use: they turn the faucets the wrong way and the water spills all over the place. It is the mess, this nervousness, the inability to grasp the structure of power that becomes the film’s political logic, the sign of an aporia or impasse, the impossibility of not knowing how to carry out something very basic, to go about everyday life, something as rudimentary as it had been demonstrated in the prefigurative ablutions of the initial tableaux. It is as if, all of a sudden, everything becomes strange, unfamiliar, indifferent, formidable.
Foster Child is most productively viewed in relation to last year’s most accomplished film Inang Yaya and one of this year’s most revealing projects, Endo. The former speaks of surrogate motherhood and the latter of the contractualization of labor. It may motivate us to draw connections between these three narratives: of how work in the nation has been shaped by contractualization, more specifically subcontracting, surviving on exchange with short-term benefits and with enduring costs to well being and the capacity to truly love. In a significant way, these three portraits depict certain biopolitical formations in Philippine society: how bodies have become irreducibly the very “things” that have been produced for circulation as “labor” and whose romantic, erotic, and filial feelings have been compromised, and in fact, even effaced. We tend to forget that John-John has a biological mother, too, absent though she may be on the screen. And it is the nation-state that finances fostering as part of “social work and community development” in the era of globalization.
In light of a layered screenplay, a deft direction that scrupulously harnesses the potential of digital technology with nary an affectation, and astonishingly sensitive performances from the cast, most particularly Cherry Pie Picache’s valiant effort to nuance degrees of being fleeting and eternal Mother, the film deserves to be the favored child of 2007, the posterity of a dear departed industry.
(This essay first appeared in YCC’s 18th Annual Circle Citations program, August 2008.)