Thursday, May 24, 2012

ContemporAsian: The Woman in the Septic Tank

Desperately poor, Mila is about to sell one of her seven children to a sexual predator.  Relax, it is only a movie.  It isn’t real.  It isn’t even really happening in the film either, just the film-within-the-film, if it ever gets made.  The poverty fetishism of international festival films gets a healthy skewering in Marlon Rivera’s The Woman in the Septic Tank (trailer here), which is currently screening at MoMA as part of their continuing ContemporAsian film series.

Mila is in for a host of degradations, but we will only see a few scenes of her painful life over and over, as first-time director Rainer, his producer Bingbong, and their PA Jocelyn try to best calibrate the privation porn for politically correct film festival audiences.  Whenever possible, they crank up the transgressiveness and even contemplate turning it into a musical (bringing to mind a certain Lebanese Oscar wannabe). 

Of course, the key will be casting a big star as Mila to secure the financing.  As luck would have it, real life comic superstar Eugene Domingo is looking for a prestige project.  There will have to be a meeting of the minds on certain creative decisions first though, including which of Domingo’s three forms of [over]-acting Rainer would prefer she employ for the film.

Displaying an unusually sporting sense of humor, Domingo plays herself and really lets herself have it.  It is definitely a larger than life diva turn, but it aptly serves the film’s sharp satire.  The indie filmmakers are certainly on the receiving end of plenty of jokes as well, particularly as they wax ghoulishly rhapsodic about the cinematic potential of the teeming slum locations, until reality rudely intrudes.

Kean Cipriano and JM de Guzman are a bit colorless as Rainer and Bingbong, respectively, largely functioning as straightmen to Domingo and the overriding concept.  However, Cai Cortez adds a bit of spark to the film as their not yet completely disillusioned assistant.

If there is one thing indie films do well it would be taking themselves too seriously.  That is why Septic is such a welcome corrective.  Screenwriter Chris Martinez (who previously directed Domingo in the popular tearjerker 100) dishes out some rather bold comedy.  Ironically, audiences at MoMA might actually pick up on a few more jokes than Filipino viewers, because the films Septic sends up are produced almost entirely for foreign venues (like MoMA).

Although diminishing returns start to set in, the film sure signs off with a happy ending.  It might be somewhat small in scope, but it is wickedly pointed.  Heartily recommended for cineastes who will both get and appreciate the humor, The Woman in the Septic Tank runs through Monday (5/28) at MoMA.