Ang Babae sa Septic Tank (Marlon Rivera, 2011) August 8, 2011Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
Written by Chris Martinez
Directed by Marlon Rivera
Cast: Eugene Domingo, JM de Guzman, Kean Cipriano, Cai Cortez
Comparisons are dangerous to make and risky to defend when writing film reviews, but sometimes their ability to simplify and flesh out acute similarities and differences between two movies explains their worth, especially when the point being illustrated bares the curiously inconsistent nature of the moviegoing public, people who have social and financial capability to watch screenings at festivals and mall theaters.
Wenn Deramas’s Ang Tanging Ina Mo (Last Na ‘To!) is a critical and commercial success, winning major awards at the 2010 Metro Manila Film Festival and the PMPC Star Awards for Movies and raking in millions at the box-office. No matter how blasphemous it sounds to hardcore cinephiles, Deramas’s win as Best Director brings to mind François Truffaut’s similar victory at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival for The 400 Blows. Both recognitions were confirmations, and both directors, coming fom the furthest ends of artistic reputation, became established auteurs in their own right, each of them guided by a world view that defined their oeuvre.
The only basis for Ang Tanging Ina Mo‘s critical acclaim is the awards—and of course, the inescapable praise from Butch Francisco—and the only people who took it seriously were those from the production themselves. The film has many levels of crap, enjoyable at some parts, but apparently its life starts and ends inside the theater. Outside, it becomes a figment of the occasion, a staple of the season, a pile of dirt under your fingernails. So, poking at the obvious, how come Ang Babae sa Septic Tank, also a critical and commercial success, manages to linger outside the confines of the cinema and excites even the most highbrow of moviegoers?
Simple: its filmmakers cater to the taste of the middle class. Unlike Deramas, Chris Martinez, the writer of Septic Tank who’s clearly in control of the movie, is a Palanca-winning author, an independent filmmaker, and a wily humorist whose grasp of Filipino sensibilities crosses socio-economic classes. His stories are culture-specific, metropolitan, and contemporary. They record a certain period in Philippine society when people are inclined to favor massive trends and when popular fixtures of discussions die of overkill. Bridal Shower, Bikini Open, Kimmy Dora, Caregiver, Here Comes the Bride, and the remake of Temptation Island are children of men, women, gays, and lesbians of our time. They are offspring of a vogue and they connect well to people because their subjects are the audience members themselves, their friends, their enemies, and their loved ones. The middle class appreciates this mix of wit, timeliness, and familiarity, and when a Martinez script is handled by a competent director—Jeffrey Jeturian in particular—it leaps from caricature to virtuosity. Septic Tank director Marlon Rivera treads on the script religiously, which is so thin you can easily segregate which is biodegradable and which is not.
Almost every review written about Septic Tank emphasizes the laugh-out-loud nature of the film, and yes, it’s that type of movie. However, what’s missing from these reviews is the profession of tolerance for the clumsy gaps between the gags. For instance, before marveling at the sight of Eugene Domingo at her luxurious house, the audience has to suffer from the utter shoddiness of a musical number first. The blunder of Septic Tank is the assumption of its filmmakers that the viewers will not be able to recognize which parts of the movie are intentionally sloppy and which parts aren’t. Even in some scenes where Rivera could have taken advantage of the freedom from Martinez’s control and shown his skill in framing and blocking actors, specifically those set in the slum location of Walang Wala, it seems that the school of filmmaking that Rainier and Bingbong are so fond of mocking is where Rivera comes from. Again, that may be intentional, but that doesn’t mean it’s effective.
In her review of the film, Jessica Zafra mentions that “everything we’ve always wanted to say about poverty porn—movies, mostly independently-produced, which focus on the squalor and desperation of the underclass in Philippine society—is encapsulated in Ang Babae Sa Septic Tank.” Upon realizing that her definition of poverty porn is completely similar to mine, I wonder why her statement strikes me as empty. First of all, Septic Tank does not say much about poverty porn. It’s practically short on insight and its indulgence in farce makes room for that typical academic defense that a work need not be explicit and serious to prove its point. While I concur that comedies are harder to pull off than dramatic films, what I dislike about Septic Tank is that it panders to moviegoers and tries hard to be funny. Its attempts at comedy fail most of the time because of the pressure to be funny, and this consciousness shows a lot in the awkward staging, dull photography, and uninspired cutting between scenes.
Second, the movie treats poverty porn with disdain, belittling its significance as a socio-political echo of contemporary art and society. A number of people look down on poverty porn as if it’s some kind of disease, and they feel the right to express superiority to it, mock its existence, and give it a death sentence. Poverty is substance, porn is form, and the combination of both is a patent of Philippine cinema that can’t be denied. We make movies about poverty because more than half of our population are poor. But Septic Tank doesn’t dwell on that. It dwells on people, the filmmakers, the festival programmers, and the local and international audience that encourage the proliferation of this type of films. Septic Tank reveals the hypocrisy of local filmmakers and the absurdities of their filmmaking, but at the end of the movie, aren’t the people behind Septic Tank guilty of milking money out of other people’s trash too?
The movie is less a critique of local independent cinema than a showcase of Eugene Domingo’s overstated comic talent. It stops from dragging the moment Rainier, Bingbong, and Jocelyn arrive at her house, a temple of some sort in which her portraits adorn the walls and her staff members exchange brilliant questions like “How is Ms. Domingo today?” This sequence strikes a balance with the crucial café setting in the first half. But no matter how painfully realistic Arthur Poongbato is, the conceited filmmaker can never match the audacity of Eugene’s diva antics. Upon reflection, it’s actually a little frustrating when you realize that Martinez and Rivera have been successful in letting Eugene parody herself and make the excesses work, whereas when they shift the focus to Rainier, Bingbong, and Jocelyn, the luster wears off very easily.
Art is entertainment and entertainment is art, but when a work consciously aspires to be both, there is the risk of falling into neither. Septic Tank is worthy of discussions, but expect loads of air quotes—”reality,” “irony,” “poverty,” “social commentary,” “audience appeal,” “great,” “funny,” “witty”—which are all fluff. For a movie that ridicules a notable aspect of Philippine cinema, a work that’s supposed to articulate ideas, it’s strange that Septic Tank is not a far cry from the type of films it lampoons. After all, is laughter really the best medicine?