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Woman in the Septic Tank, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Apparently, some critical darlings are full of s---."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2012 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I see what you did, Fantasia Festival programmers, scheduling a series of FIlipino films that wallow in the poverty of the slums and then finishing it with a movie that takes the piss out of the rest. Or, alternately, scheduling the parody for one of the "extra" days after the closing film when many festival-goers have returned home. Either way, it would have been even more clever if "The Woman in the Septic Tank" was as consistently sharp in its satire as it is in its best moments.

In a dirt-poor Manila slum, Mila prepares dinner for her seven children from one package of instant ramen, bathes the oldest, dresses her in a nice dress, and delivers her to an elderly caucasian man. That, at least, is the movie that young Filipino writer/director Rainier (Kean Cipriano) wants to make - Walang-wala ("With Nothing"). Producer Bingbong (JM de Guzman) and production assistant Jocelyn (Cai Cortez) are equally enthusiastic. It's everything that the foreign film festivals that love the likes of Brillante Mendoza go for, and they've got a meeting with one of the country's biggest stars, Eugene Domingo, for the part of Mila.

The main gag here, of course, is that the filmmakers are middle-class, running through script sequences on their iPads while driving to Starbucks in their late-model car and then complaining about the wi-fi. They've got far more in common with the foreigners who are their true target audience than with the destitute people that they would cynically offer up for their audience's pity. And it's a good gag, especially when writer Chris Martinez and and director Marlon N. Rivera are really on their game. They open the movie with narration describing whats happening on-screen with "Sequence 34", which while being how a script reads also highlights just how generic and codified this stuff has become, while the camerawork is subtly obsessive, needing to capture every repeated detail of hardship.

There is an upper limit to what you can do with that theme, of course, and once the craven nature of the filmmakers has been shown early on, that idea needs to be wrung harder and harder to try and keep the laughs up. At times, the movie gets a little too inside for its own good, and scenes that try to cast Rainier and Bingbong as somewhat sympathetic (relatively speaking) threaten to drag things off-point. Satire can't be done halfway, and there are stretches where these filmmakers don't seem fully committed.

They do still manage some good laughs during those stretches. Eugene Domingo is an excellent sport when called upon to lampoon herself in particular and actors seeking indie credibility while maintaining their mainstream perks in general, for instance, and while some of the pastiches of Walang-wala in different styles are predictable or drawn out, at least a couple have at a few good jokes in them. Both the filmmakers in front of the camera and behind it know what they're doing; even when exaggerated, everything in the movie seems believable.

But maybe restraint is not what is needed here; "The Woman in the Septic Tank" is at its very funniest when it locks onto its target and doesn't let anyone off the hook. It actually could do with going further, as the targets of its satire are much more extreme than the movie itself, but it certainly makes its point.

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originally posted: 08/10/12 02:56:57
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2012 series, click here.

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Directed by
  Marlon Rivera

Written by
  Chris Martinez

  Eugene Domingo
  JM De Guzman
  Kean Cipriano

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