Review: A Septic Tank’s Fragrance

Ang Babae sa Septic Tank is a parody of filmmaking in the Philippines

The sudden surge of popularity of indie filmmaking here in the Philippines has made it a victim of its own success.

When indie movies were just starting to get local recognition, many of them had already won awards abroad and had toured the circuits of international film festivals. Driven by these accomplishments, many filmmakers, the established and the aspiring ones alike, began to follow suit. However, not every movie was done tastefully, unlike their trendsetting predecessors.  The thematic components behind most of these films usually revolve around the same topics: poverty, homosexual romance, and poverty again.

This was the premise that 2011 Cinemalaya Best Film “Ang Babae sa Septic Tank” tried to depict. It demonstrates the experiences of three young and aspiring filmmakers as they weed through the challenges of making their first project together. Rainier (Kean Cipriano) is the ambitious director brimming with both eagerness and overconfidence; Bingbong (JM de Guzman) is the visionary producer who makes up for the zealousness of his director friend; and Jocelyn (Cai Cortez) is the production assistant who doesn’t speak a single line in the film, but is the one responsible for the “dream” sequences because of her character’s wild imagination.

The ‘film’ they are making is called “Walang Wala” which tells the story of impoverished Mila (Eugene Domingo) as she struggles through making ends meet for her family. She does all sorts of things in order for her to earn a living, including the seemingly despicable job of cleaning a septic tank. It reached a point where she can’t take their situation any longer that she decided to sell one of her children to an American pedophile in exchange for cold cash. This is the aspect of poverty that the “aspiring filmmakers” want to highlight in their first film. They are of the notion that first-world film critics will recognize their film just because it tackles a somewhat disturbing third-world dilemma. “Ang Babae sa Septic Tank” successfully satirizes this reality in local filmmaking.

Comedic genius Eugene Domingo

The three actors should be commended for their realistic portrayal of filmmakers who were engulfed by their false notions about the industry and were blinded by their desires to get international recognition. However, the film really belongs to Eugene Domingo. She played not just the role of feeble Mila, but also some other roles with various characterizations. She even played “herself” in the movie and gives a funny rendition of different kinds of acting in her book, namely: elevator acting, TV Patrol acting, and as is-where is acting. This specific part in the film really tells how much of a comedic genius she is. A certain part in the film was also rendered musically, a la Broadway, and this provides us a glimpse of Domingo’s previous background in theater. The music was catchy and worded wittily too! That part was also my personal favorite in the movie. Watch and know why:

Aside from depicting the problems with indie filmmaking, Septic Tank also provided a comparison between mainstream and independent films. To be fair with indie, the film also revealed the problems of making movies commercially: excessive melodrama (which borders on overacting), product placements, and demanding stars with a diva-like attitude. Hence, the movie serves as a parody of the state of Philippine cinema in general.

Although this is Marlon Rivera’s directorial debut, it doesn’t feel like this is the first movie he has done.  Before this film, I know him as a fashion designer. But after this movie, being a director might eventually become his primary credential. As expected, the script written by Chris Martinez did not fail to deliver. It was hilarious in most aspects, following in the footsteps of his previous works like “Here Comes the Bride” and “Temptation Island”. The tandem of these two artists is definitely a riot. Their next project is something I look forward to!

Photo of Direk Marlon Rivera that I took during Fashion Week. He's with fellow designer M Barretto.

The movie is said to be the most successful Cinemalaya film in terms of box-office. Hence, Star Cinema, perhaps the biggest mainstream film producer in the country, picked it up for commercial release. Judging by the film’s content, there seems to be an irony right there. It’s painful to state the obvious.

Currently, the movie is doing well in theaters. Hopefully, it would serve as an eyeopener to the current state of cinema, both indie and commercial. Which leads us to ask: could it actually be saved before it gets completely drenched in grime and grub? With the outcome of this film, I am quite optimistic.

Not every septic tank smells that filthy, after all.

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