“Wretched Lives” intends to champion the cause of impoverished Filipinos caught between the desperation of shanty town life and the temptation of popular revolution, but its real stripes are that of a crude meller that succumbs to paint-by-numbers dramatics and utterly artless violence. Latter quality is a sadly familiar tendency of too many Filipino pics, and here it manifests itself in a sudden, third-act explosion of vicious abuse of women. A hit with Filipino urban auds and critics as well as a star-making vehicle for nubile teen lead Assunta de Rossi, pic’s export biz is a non-starter.
Nothing demonstrates the film’s tendency to have it both ways more than the opener, showing poor working gal Vanessa (de Rossi) steamily making out with cabby Oliver (Wendell Ramos) in his taxi while his radio blares a debate between male and female talkshow hosts about the future makeup of the Filipino government.
The disjunction is amusing, but as scripter Roy Iglesias’ storyline develops, it becomes clear pic cannot cleverly or seamlessly link together Vanessa’s family’s struggle for survival and the larger political battle brewing in the streets (which actually took place in January 2001) between forces supporting discredited prexy Joseph Estrada and contender and eventual victor Gloria Arroyo.
With her mom’s sudden death, Vanessa must take care of her younger teen sister Nikka (de Rossi’s real-life sis Alessandra) who has the mental capacity of a 5-year-old and the bad habit of allowing nefarious men to have their way with her. Vanessa makes one terrible decision after another, starting by insisting she can take care of Nikka amid the disorder of the shantytown, and continuing with her choice of roughneck bodyguard Uno (Jay Manolo) as her b.f. over Oliver. Inevitably, Uno abuses Vanessa to within an inch of her life, and Nikka runs off with strangers who offer her free hamburgers.
Pic’s rough outline echoes Brechtian interplay of personal drama and larger sociopolitical forces, sans irony or a gripping style. Instead of tuning to popular, escapist TV or sports as they would likely do, the characters are constantly checking on electronic media reports of the ensuing political rallies and riots, but the repeated, creaky use of this expository device is more hilarious than informative.
Hardly helping are the strident performances from all but the frequently engaging Assunta de Rossi, although several slo-mo sex scenes she’s asked to perform are cheesy.
Production factors are mixed, from a graceful use of steadicam and production designer Larry Matic’s extensive re-creation of a shantytown, to d.p. Romulo Araojo’s habit of overlighting. Post-dubbing is roughly applied.