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The mean streets of Manila are the location for Blanka, a picaresque modern day Oliver Twist following a pre-teen orphan as she picks pockets and does her best to create her own makeshift family. A Philippines/Italy/Japan collaboration and a product of the Biennale College Cinema, Japanese director Hasei Kohki shirks off the extended miserablism of Lav Diaz and Brillante Mendoza for a bright, colorful, almost cheery tour through the city’s slums as seen by its street kids. Blanka is a wisp of a film—it just barely flirts with feature length—but its bittersweet tone and ironically happy ending should earn it a place in Asia-focused festivals. Limited art house release could be a stretch with the exception of niche markets, but a life in digital download isn’t out of the question.
Aska Matsumiya, Alberto Bof and Francis De Veyra’s jaunty score kicks off the film, signaling an alternative point of view immediately. We see young Blanka (YouTube starCydel Gabutero) from a distance as she weaves her way through the throng of humanity until she spots a couple of tourists, complete with giant-lensed Nikon and loose satchel. When the two men get swarmed by a bunch of kids wanting to pose for a picture, they oblige, and Blanka slips in and grabs a wallet. Evidently a budding gangster, she divvies up the money among her crew, short-changing them in the process. Blanka’s quite the businesswoman, and she squirrels away her share in a tin can.
Later she meets blind street musician Peter (Peter Millari) and strikes up an unusual friendship with the elderly man. She’s taken with his guitar playing and bemused by his ability to sense when she’s around. They head for a more lucrative part of town to do some busking together and Blanka’s fortunes seem to take a turn for the better. A local bar owner (Dido Dela Paz) hires the duo to perform in his club and Blanka adds her earnings to the tin. The goal: buy a mother. Knowing full well that kids like her get bought and sold every day and yearning for the kind of life she sees around her she advertises for a mom offering up 30,000 pesos (about $700).
Of course things go wrong: Blanka’s double crossed by the bar owner’s shady manager, she has a fight with Peter and runs away in a huff, and has a close encounter with a sleazy trafficker (Ruby Ruiz) who plans on taking advantage of Blanka’s orphan status. However it’s this second go at independence that starts her on the road to the makeshift family she’s looking for. Despite her youth, Gabutero carries the story on her shoulders and does so with a naturalism that straddles the line between performance and behaving like a normal 12-year-old. Blanka’s second act finds her exploiting her mercenary nature—or the nature the city has bred into her—along with her own personal Fagin in Raul (Raymond Camacho) and his more innocent right hand Sebastian (natural charmer Jomar Bisuyo). Where Raul is hardened and resigned, Blanka and Sebastian bring out the kid in each other; they have fun with their petty robberies, take time to go for a swim and just be kids.
Blanka is bathed in a sunny palette and cinematographer Onishi Takeyuki quite lovingly photographs Manila’s dusty slums, picking up the splashes of vibrant color that accent the cityscape. That doesn’t mean writer-director Hasei turns a blind eye to the more troubling aspects of life on the street but he doesn’t force the issue either. When Blanka encounters one setback after another there’s no melodrama to go with it, it’s a daily hazard for her and it’s heartbreaking—infuriating in the case of the trafficker that hopes to turn a preteen girl into a stripper. Ultimately Blanka is a drama about family and choice, but there’s something sweet and hopeful about Blanka, Peter and Sebastian’s final reunion (even though the film’s economical running time means their unshakeable bonds are forged in record time) that feels like a sliver of joy amid the misery rather than a naïve urban fantasy.
Production company: Dorje Film
Cast: Cydel Gabutero, Peter Millari, Jomar Bisuyo, Raymond Camacho, Ruby Ruiz
Director: Hasei Kohki
Screenwriter: Hasei Kohki
Producer: Flaminio Zadra, Alberto Fanni,
Director of photography: Onishi Takeyuki
Production designer: Mimi Sanson-Viola
Costume designer: Armi Kushella Sanson-Lluch
Editor: Ben Tolentino
Music: Aska Matsumiya, Alberto Bof, Francis De Veyra
World sales: m-appeal
No rating, 77 minutes
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