Ang Babae sa Septic Tank (The Woman in the Septic Tank), directed by Marlon Rivera from a screenplay written by Chris Martinez, earns most of its laughs from the misadventures of director Rainer (Kean Cipriano), producer Bingbong (JM de Guzman), and production assistant Jocelyn (Cai Cortez), an overly ambitious troop of filmmakers who are out to make their dream film entitled Walang Wala by exploiting the picturesque poverty of Manila. As they brainstorm on the casting, the look, the story, the poster design, and down to the English translation of the title of their precious project, the film takes shape inside the mind of perennially quiet Jocelyn (perhaps Rivera and Martinez's homage to the production crew rendered voiceless by noisy auteurs and capitalists), showcasing what's depressingly wrong in the current state of Philippine filmmaking in the most hilarious of ways.
Ang Babae sa Septic Tank delights in caricaturizing filmmakers, films, and the business of making films. There are practically no real characters to speak of, and no real story for the characters to navigate in. The filmmakers are just comical representations of deplorable traits of filmmakers tend to have. The plot is essentially what happens in a typical day in the pre-production of the film, where meetings, pitches, and location checks are crammed within the few working hours of the day in true independent film fashion.
Rivera and Martinez thickens what essentially is a thinly plotted experience with wit and exaggeration, creating both a chilling and charming indictment of Philippine cinema for creating monsters that feed on fame and fortune at the expense of the truly marginalized. Unfortunately, Ang Babae sa Septic Tank trips on its own trap. In its quest for some sort of comeuppance for its erring characters, it draws up a twist that makes use of the most common stereotype of poverty, which is abject criminality.
Ang Babae sa Septic Tank's biggest commodity is reliable Eugene Domingo, who plays the various versions of Walang Wala's Mila, the hapless mother of too many children who is forced to sell one of her kids to a pedophile to survive. She also plays an overly distorted version of herself. Domingo hilariously hams up the role of the overly-pampered product of mainstream projects and television shows.
Lately, Philippine cinema has been represented internationally by the films of Brillante Mendoza which are predominantly focused on lives persisting in extreme cases of poverty. With the success of Mendoza and the demand of film festival programmers for exoticized visions of third-world penury, other filmmakers followed suit, filming various stories back-grounded by mountains of trash, acres of slums, and never-ending violence.
The Philippines, sadly, is proud of a cinema that most of its citizens have not seen. It is proud of a cinema that is taken hostage by the international film festivals that dictate upon it its inevitable direction. It is proud of a cinema that is only part of a vicious cycle of international demands and artists too willing to fill in these demands. Of course, that is only one spectrum of the debate. The other spectrum belongs to what's right in Philippine cinema, which is obviously not the focus of Martinez and Rivera and would have made the film a less effective parody.
With its brave and seamless sense of humor, Ang Babae sa Septic Tank is a sure crowd-pleaser. However, let not its comedic machinations be mistakenly considered as the summation of the bigger, more complex and more beautiful thing that is Philippine cinema.
(Cross-published in Lessons from the School of Inattention.)