Adolfo Alix, Jr.'s Isda (Fable of the Fish) appears to be just another movie set in the overexploited slums of Manila. Lina (Cherry Pie Picache) and Miguel (Bembol Roco), a childless couple despite several years of being married who have just relocated from the province to the city to change their fate, arrive at the slums just in time to witness an unsurprising altercation between a slum dweller and the police, which is expectedly spiced by rowdy and overly involved onlookers. Unstirred by the unexpected but commonplace boisterous welcome of their new home, the couple settle in. Miguel finds a job in the nearby ice plant. Lina stays at home, taking care of the children of her neighbors if she's not helping her husband in trying to earn money from the dumpsite. Despite the harrowing conditions of the place where they decided to live, Lina and Miguel's new life is strangely perfect, except that they have not been blessed with a child of their own.
Then Lina gets pregnant, and gives birth, amazingly, to a fish.
Alix does not completely abandon reality in his foray into the supernatural. Picache and Roco admirably wear their roles with unquestionable conviction, blurring further the line that separates the gnawing reality of the depicted poverty and the fantasy of the couple's situation.
Isda is also visually intriguing, with the scenes framed purposefully, either to direct humor or to forward the narrative. Cinematographer Albert Banzon ensures that the film is not too grimly lit or too bluntly framed. The music, melodies randomly conjured from a single violin, lends uneasiness to the affair.
Absurd is a word that Isda draws its power from. From the absurdity of families etching out decent lives from the indecent conditions of the slums and the dumpsite to the absurdity of Lina giving birth to a fish and attempting to be normal in an obviously abnormal family situation, Alix maintains an unwavering consistency in his depiction. The film is refreshingly mischievous, wearing a mask of seriousness amidst the hilarity of everything that is going on. The film appears to be just one big joke, the same big joke that screenwriter Jerry Gracio played on Lina and Miguel when he wrote Lina's birthing to a fish into his screenplay. However, the film is indisputably bigger than the sum of all the chuckles the obliviousness of its characters of the blatant absurdity that they're living could ever produce.
Beyond the absurdity and the tabloid-worthy uniqueness of the story that would most probably be the center of all discussions about the film is a very simple but very earnest portrait of a family. Alix maps the family's story with astute tenderness, establishing relationships between each member, grounding them with logic and emotions. More importantly, Alix does not place his story within a lifeless vacuum. He concocts a community for the family to exist in and relate to. He has created a world, exaggerated it seems with people living and raising families side by side with garbage, that is ready to admit another glaring anomaly. The truths of Isda, I believe, are as weighty if not weightier than its delicious and deliriously memorable flights of fantasy.
(Cross-published in Lessons from the School of Inattention.)