What sorts of kinships are forged by a trans woman, particularly as she is forced by circumstances to perform motherhood? How does this trans mother queer the terms of affinity? And what does she do to the family romance that beleaguers most Philippine predicaments? These are the questions which trouble Rod Singh’s debut film Mamu; and a Mother Too.
The premise can only be ingenious, fundamentally challenging reproductive notions of motherhood, and the cisgender structures which frame its prejudices. “Mamu,” is that term of endearment attributed to non-biological maternal figures, queering them at the moment of being hailed as such, “Mamu”: not my mother, but in a manner of speaking, and after all sorts of silent reckonings, my mother too. The film points to this inevitability, at the moment of the mother’s death. Mamu, a trans woman sex worker, must become mother to trans girl Bona, her sister’s daughter. Mamu brings Bona to Olongapo; in the former’s house, Bona must contend with Vincent, Mamu’s cis straight partner; and the most awkward of arrangements are played out for familial affect to take place, among queer folxs. One must not also forget Bona’s induction into a queer community, thanks to the auspices of such matrilineage: trans aunts, trans sisters, queer friends, cis allies, and trans amorous boys, all would nurture their girl’s blossoming.
At first, Bona’s introduction to the household only exacerbates the conditions of Mamu’s trans existence. If sex work can barely make ends meet for her and her partner, a part-time mechanic, how can she, a woman past her prime, even support a daughter? The film, as it proceeds, deftly shows us how Mamu copes with the demands of the erotic economy; she bets on online sex, and sometimes, she wins (her income from it contributes to her fund to augment her breasts, a lifelong dream since affirmation). Beyond the tricks of her trade, Mamu affirms herself further as a creative laborer: a cook and an entrepreneur who organically involves her sassy daughter in the family business, and who finally liberates an infantilized partner to explore the world of work he’s always wanted to embrace.
The ghost of maternal reproduction returns however in Bona’s repetition of Mamu’s primary life of labor. After catching her boyfriend cheat on her with a fellow trans girl, Bona engages in sex work, without Mamu’s consent, and even finds herself empowered in the process, to Mamu’s amazement. What Bona could not foresee through her own affirmation was the violence that attended the work around her sex. The context of the film intimated they had lived in the time of Jennifer Laude’s murder, and of course, in Olongapo, of all places. One morning, Bona collapses, and is rushed to the hospital. Her body had been abused, the doctor regrets. In order to prove Mamu’s unconditional motherly love, the film subjects her to all manner of abjection. We ask whether this indignity was necessary to drive home the heroic point. And we ask further: how much of the abjection is seen less from an articulated trans sufferance than an internalized cisheteropatriarchal condescension from within the queer gaze?
For its candid portrayal of a trans mother in the world of sex work, and the various intimacies created in such a proposition, Mamu; and a Mother too is an ecstatic piece of queer cinema in these moribund parts. The style would sometimes yield to melodramatic demeanor, but its filmmakers, especially the performers, must be lauded for raising the complexity of the lives they played in high relief, that is, beyond the frame of the social script that engendered them on screen.