(The following is the first of a series of reviews of films from the ongoing Cinemalaya Film Festival, a Filipino film festival which is a showcase for new, independent Filipino films.)
Filipino independent cinema has very recently become a regular staple in the international film festival circuit. Filmmakers like Lav Diaz, Aureus Solito, Jeffrey Jeturian and Brillante Mendoza have earned buzz, won awards and rave reviews for their work, and deservedly so. Usually made with digital cameras, using long takes, shooting on-location with obvious influence of French New Wave and Italian neorealism, the films often take an unflinching look into the lives of the poor and the downtrodden of the Philippines, far from the white-sand beaches and malls which the country often touts as their pride and joy. In fact, some of these films have been criticized for exoticizing poverty in the Philippines ("poverty porn" some call it) and have developed into a sort of subgenre of Philippine cinema.
This is one of the reasons The Woman in the Septic Tank (Ang Babae Sa Septic Tank) is such a breath of fresh air. The film starts off with shots of poverty, people living among the garbage, an all-too common sight in the urban metropolis. Then they focus on a woman named Mila who has seven children and is the poorest of their lot, splitting one packet of instant noodles among them. Then it's revealed that she's on her way to a motel where she will be selling one of her children for sex with a pedophile. Then instantly, it cuts to three would-be indie filmmakers (an ambitious director, his producer and their production assistant) discussing this film that they're making, on their way to meet with their lead actress, Eugene Domingo (she's a pretty famous TV and movie actress in the Philippines and she plays both Mila and herself here).
The Woman in the Septic Tank then becomes an often hilarious parody of the Filipino movie industry as well as independent Filipino cinema as each, already cliched aspects of both are skewered and parodied to high heavens. The actors are good but the real star here is Eugene Domingo, who wasn't afraid to mock herself and play, what I'm guessing is, an exaggerated caricature of herself as a commercially successful actress who wants to stretch her resume in an indie flick. The film likewise is also shot like an indie flick and the humor is biting but never really mean-spirited. Although one has to be familiar with the tropes of Filipino cinema and indie cinema circuit in order to fully appreciate some of the jokes.
I've seen tons of Filipino films of this kind. Some really good, some a tad too self-important. Satirical films like this are rare in Filipino cinema so I have to say, this is quite a breath of fresh air. It's marred only by a musical sequence that is just a couple of minutes too long. Otherwise, this is a must see and if you're in Manila this week, I strongly suggest you seek this film out. (***1/2)