Gutter poetry at its finest, Khavn De La Cruz's parade of humanity at its strangest in Filipino caper-doc-musical Mondomanila is not to be missed. The slums outside of Manila are hell on earth; an unsolvable problem of poverty and the ass end of society that is the proverbial polluted well. The film opens with a near-toothless man in a grubby Carnival barkers outfit that shouts at the camera in phonetically learned english syllables,that nonetheless require subtitles, a mad hatter driven crazy the urban ecosystem that the weather often punishes with cleansing floods. After a credit sequence that promises the Mondo in the title of the film, the film settles down to something different. It is still visceral exploitation (as are the umpteen Italian films that share that prefix), but it is also something far better.
Tony D, the hero of this depraved fairy tale perched on a crumbling bridge over murkey waters, cannot be more than 12 years old, but speaks with the world-weary cynicism of someone four times his age. Sporting a bright yellow T-Shirt that reads "Baby Jesus" he preaches right through the gaping hole in the fourth wall that gives rise to the thought that Mondomanila is some sort of raw documentary that found the most miraculous of subjects: articulate and charismatic. The film then, using every poor-boy stylistic excess under the sun, pulls back to the large social circle that orbits Tony D. There is his mother, Maria, who washes laundry in the street for a living which is supplemented by occasionally pimping herself out to the local arsonist (and power-percussionist), Shoeshine Pablo, so she can pay her flamboyantly obnoxious Bingo-playing landlady, Lovey Loanshark, the meagre rent for a dilapidated shack. There is his little brother, the six at most Dino Jr., who that tells their mother that he gives massages, but comes home with wads of cash and bleeding from his rear end. The camera doesn't shy away from clean-up duty and the wake-up call to Maria who while tough, lives in denial because she has to. The film spends a large chunk of the running time on Tony D's circle of friends, hustling midget Muse who wears a bright bow-tie and has an onscreen presence equal to Peter Dinklage. There is rave-glo gay Naty whose father (Sgt. Pepper) hates because dad wanted a tough-guy son to follow in his fathers footsteps. Pepper was ejected from the police, or military or para-military (it is never made clear) because of his gross insubordination and general sense of witless machismo; he wears a Hitler mustache too. Ogo X lays down some magnificent beats (the song "Drogo" one of the films more angry and lucid vignettes) as he walks the streets with an amp strapped to his person and gesticulating wildly with his gimpy hand (the other one is severed or missing at birth.) There is Dugyot who fucks a goose on screen and I am unclear if this was simulated or not. Finally, there is Isko the pimp, another little person (also with a severed hand) who does a mean breakdance while operating the slums crowded water-pump and tap. All of these characters wander into the Tony D's private and grotty drug squatting hovel a trade obnoxious banter that is nevertheless compellingly entertaining when shot it high contrast black and white photography.
As thorough as the rouges-gallery may be laid out in the preceding paragraph, and indeed in the film they are given snappy little character bios as they are introduced on screen, this only scratches the surface of the ridiculously dense 75 minutes, which at the half-way mark, has the temerity to morph into a revenge-heist film. When Tony D and Muse stop getting drunk/high long enough to put together a payback scheme for Dino Jr.'s rape, the film kicks into stylistic high-gear using strange optically warped lenses, split screens, straw-hole cameras, and still frames (La Jetée style). Villains like the Whiteboy (aka Steve Banners), a Fred Phelps type who belches fire-and-brimstone rhetoric against the local carnality in the slums, emerge whilethe rest of the characters remain in the air like spinning plates and the film builds to its big (and shockingly joyful) karaoke number, making the film the dark drug-fueled doppelgänger of Malaysia's Sell Out. Mondomanila is chock-o-block of indelible images of their own unique variety, from the aforementioned goose-fucking to an insect hatching (painfully) from a pupa buried in the flesh on a man's skull and Shoeshine Pablo delivering a soliloquy on how to properly commit arson (shades of Man Bites Dog) before banging his pots and water-jug drumkit, all the while wearing an oversized tiger-striped tie in the shape of a penis. You can never go wrong with ending a film with the entire cast in a tsunami-sized musical number, and despite all the grotesquery on display, there is a beating heart of human spirit that shows Danny Boyle's Oscar winner for the faux-facile mawkishness that it is.
While Mondomanila lacks the slick polish of Fernando Meirelles' Kátia Lund's City of God or the broad satire of Áron Gauder's animated Nyócker! (The District), what a triple bill that would make; a character cornucopia of slumdog millionaires. Khavn De La Cruz has been working on this film for over four years and yes the film looks excessive and cheap, that is a marriage to style to substance, not a criticism of the filmmaking. It is rare to see subject matter and aesthetics line up so satisfying. See this any way you can, but probably not with your grandmother or clergyman.