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BUSAN, South Korea — A mockumentary about filmmaking and a gritty-realist tragedy of child prostitution in a Manila slum are arguably two of the most je jeune offerings in a festival lineup. Philippine director Marlon Rivera exploits both these cliches to make The Woman in a Septic Tank – a lambast of the pretensions of independent cinema in his country and his fellow filmmakers’ inflated egos. With screenwriter-producer Chris Martinez (100, Here Comes the Bride) contributing juicy lines and a structured framework that’s the antithesis of the rambling, “real-time” works being sent-up, witty, bitchy and cine-literate Woman is among the most outstanding directorial debuts in Philippine cinema this year.
The film will represent the Philippines in contending for the Oscars’ foreign film category. It made a big splash in domestic release, and is tailor-made for festivals and their cinephile audiences. The story is lighthearted and lively enough for those who don’t get the industry in-jokes, but the specialized topic and low-budget look can be initially off-putting, thus dwarfing commercial prospects overseas.
Unspooling like a making-of, Woman accompanies rookie filmmaker Rainier (Kean Cipriano), his producer Bingbong (JM de Guzman)and production assistant Jocelyn (Cai Cortez) as they go casting and location scouting for their project Walang-Wala (“Have Nothing” in English). It’s supposed to be a bleak portrait of Mila, a destitute mother of seven who dolls up her pre-teen daughter to pimp her to an old Caucasian pedophile. As Rainier and Bingbong brainstorm about shooting options, the scenes they envisage serve as a pretext for dead accurate satires of themes and styles that one can instantly identify with Philippine cinema.
In the first sequence, establishing shots of the slum’s rubbish heap, and the way the handheld camera tails the protagonist’s back in long, uncut sequences mimic conventions so well one is easily fooled into taking it seriously. The funniest version is one where the crew goes for verité, and audition real slum-dwellers, but the kids are stubbornly satisfied with their lot, happily relishing a broth that Oliver Twist wouldn’t ask for seconds.
Since three specific sequences are replayed five times, with narrative or stylistic modifications, they do become slightly redundant, like a Groundhog Day of pilot filmmaking. A musical spoof in one version starts off campy but just runs too long. So is the script rewrite by the actress they audition (comedienne Eugene Domingo playing herself).
In addition to parodying Philippine independent filmmaking styles, Rivera also has a dig at his fellow directors for their slavish craving for overseas recognition and mercenary calculations of how to pander to the taste of festival programmers. It culminates in a hilarious episode in which the trio runs into a director (Jonathan Tadioan) whose sophomore feature just premiered in Venice. The dialogue nails his smugness to a T, from the name-dropping right down to the verbal inflections. The way he peddles his exotic image through his flamboyant ethnic tribal attire will instantly remind festival in-crowds of someone they know.
This is notably a star vehicle for Domingo who gleefully plays up stereotyped comic and melodramatic roles she can trot out on demand in real life. For this role, she won a national Best Actress award. As in her other comedies Kimi Dora and Here Comes the Bride, she overacts to impress upon you that she is overacting.
A post-credit scene finally introduces the titular septic tank, which comes to symbolize the trials and extreme resorts of a filmmaker.
Busan International Film Festival, A Window on Asian Cinema
Sales and production: Martinez Rivera Films, Quantum Films, Straightshooters Media Inc.
Cast: Eugene Domingo, Kean Cipriano, JM de Guzman, Cai Cortez, Jonathan Tadioan, Cherry Pie Picache, Mercedes Cabral
Director-executive producer: Marlon Rivera
Screenwriter-creative supervisor-executive producer: Chris Martinez
Head of production: Grace Quisias
Executive producers: Josabeth Alonso, John Victor Tence
Director of photography: Larry Manda.
Production designer: Norman Regalado
Music: Vincent de Jesus
Editor: Ike Veneracion
No rating, 90 minutes.
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