Thursday, August 11, 2011

Ang Babae Sa Septic Tank – Endlessly Tickling Our Funny Bones

Marlon Rivera’s Ang Babae sa Septic Tank” (The Woman in the Septic Tank) is a high wire act of film making. It’s perceptive and hilarious in ways too far removed from the usual Pinoy comedy. It playfully runs rings around human folly where boundless ambition is held up to scorn and ridicule. In fact, this is one work that elevates local humor to greater heights. This likewise underscores the capability of the Filipino to weave a yarn dripping with wit and hilarity, I’d be proud to recommend this to anyone: friends, family, foe - even to Indonesian producer Delon Teo who believes that movies should bear no logic (go figure)!

In the film, the narrative follows an independent film making crew – director Rainier (Kean Cipriano), producer Bingbong (JM de Guzman) and their production assistant Jocelyn (Cai Cortez) – as they wind their way to making a film about a woman with seven children as they navigate their environs in urban squalor. The filmmaking crew's budget allows them a mere 12 days of principal photography.

With a script on hand, they scrutinize every detail of the production, from the story (straight out narrative versus docu-drama), the camera to be used, post production requirement and editing, the look and setting of the film, the titling ("Walang Wala"), its poster, and its eventual casting.

With international festivals provocatively whirling at the back of their minds, the pumped up trio eventually lands at the door of Miss Eugene Domingo, the actress who’s being offered the role of Mila, the desperate housewife from the slums who’s out of her wits feeding her seven kids with watered down noodles. One day, Mila finds herself peddling her little boy to a Caucasian pedophile. Now, how receptive is Domingo to the project? We find out in one of the most joyous conclusions that had us laughing in shameless stitches and beguilement.

The movie is a social commentary on poverty porn, this dime-a-dozen new age genre of Philippine cinema that takes advantage of the country’s sweeping poverty - the squalor, despondency and moral ambiguity that pervades in society. It likewise generously takes shots of the inflated egos running around the world of legitimate independent film makers.

In one of several masterful narrative devices discussing their choices of actress to portray their cinematic heroine, we find Eugene Domingo, Cherry Pie Picache and Mercedes Cabral alternately portraying Mila; a tack that’s such a delectable treat for the audience’s cogitative state. In fact, we find ourselves engaged in the casting of Mila. It conjures interactive participation from its audience. Who would have thought this was possible in Philippine cinema?

In another scene, the buttoned up production assistant re-imagines the story told as a musical, and once again, it gallantly comments on the inherent mawkishness of the medium – was it referring to the previous Cinemalaya hit, Florida Bautista’s “Saan Nagtatago si Happiness?” or even Chito Rono’s “Emir”? There were very similar scenes as a crowd of irregular settlers dance in wild abandon. While Mila waits for her child by the stairs, we see Domingo immerse herself in dire emotionality typical of the genre. We were actually snickering.

I have two favorite scenes: The first was the trio’s encounter with the high-flying Arthur Poongbato, the indie film maker who, on his very first film, won big at the Venice, and got rave reviews at the Cannes. Someone suggested to us that this was Pepe Diokno whose “Engkwento” (Clash) won a couple of awards at the Venice Film Festival, but we know this wasn't so. Diokno, who’s Ateneo-bred, obviously knows his subject-verb agreement; is known to be mild mannered, and is aware of his espressos from “expressos”. Another tweety bird told us that this was Auraeus Solito, a brilliant director (we love his “Busong” to bits) who doesn’t seem to have a lot of local fans or friends within his filmmaking crowd. In the movie, the jetsetting new director is in a daze with all the international film festival invitations he has to attend. “Parang umuuwi lang ako ng Pilipinas para mag shower,” he remarks in jest. And he has yet to fly to these remote-sounding places: Mar del Plata (Argentina), Cairo, and Vesoul. When asked where Vesoul is, there was the unmistakable chirping of the crickets.

Fact is, we have a subcommunity of film makers who take a premium on international film festivals, ignoring the local scene altogether; their works never see exhibition for the 95 million Filipinos to appreciate. What good are these awards if they don’t even lift a finger to get their works shown in commercial theaters? What is their international recognition worth, but inflated egos, and not much else. At least not to the home crowd who can’t fly to Toronto, Pusan or Rotterdam to watch their masterpieces.

Our other favorite scene was when they finally meet the voluble Eugene Domingo to discuss the project. Domingo executes her mastery of the comedic language in flagrant strokes that defy adequate description. When she finally objects to scenes involving her physical immersion in a septic tank, all hell breaks lose. And on my second viewing, we found the scenes even more hilarious. “Tae yan; madumi ang tae,” Domingo emphasized.

When Domingo drops her lines with a certain rhythm and cadence (check out the three types of acting in her book), we shriek with laughter. She is such a joy to behold.

Frontal nudity, check! Sex scenes with actual penetration, check! Domingo enumerates things she’s willing to do for her art. But a septic tank? Will she or won’t she? You have to watch this to witness one of the most hilarious highlights to ever grace the silver screen. Scriptwriter Chris Martinez outdoes himself and turns up a tight, insightful work that, as one of his characters underline, works in many levels. Not the least of which is as one darn funny movie.

We chuckle at the sheer ambition and arrogance of its young film makers, but we're somehow lost in the preternatural re-imaginings such as the narrative that turns into a protracted musical - or a gritty in-your-face docu-drama. When Domingo lampoons herself as a mainstream personality (replete with product endorsements), her segment significantly veers away from thematic focus, as much as all her suggestions - in the guise of being "collaborative" - ultimately water down much of the film makers' raw vision on realist cinema. And didn't anyone notice Larry Manda's underwhelming cinematography? The film, in fact, opens with pixelated images adorning the opening frame. But these are minor quibbles. If anyone fails to recognize the superior craftsmanship in a film such as this, then you can be sure there won't be a lot of movies better realized and more superior than Marlon Rivera's flick.

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