Hong Kong Film Festival: A comic arrow zings indie filmmaking
Comedies about the movie business are always a risky proposition. They're hard to get right and require a sort of insider cleverness that tends to limit the appeal to a rarefied few. The cheeky, brilliant fun and dark social commentary that saturate the Philippine movie “The Woman in the Septic Tank” make it one of the most provocative surprises of the 36th annual Hong Kong International Film Festival.
The movie was born out of the frustrations of a couple of the country’s most comically critical new voices, director Marlon N. Rivera and screenwriter Chris Martinez. It takes direct aim at the film festival circuit and how the lure of awards is turning too much of indie cinema into -- if you believe the movie’s central metaphor -- garbage. So it's no small irony that “Septic Tank” is in competition for the young cinema award here.
The film marks Rivera’s move from writing to directing, and it’s hard to imagine that won’t be where he will stay. For screenwriter Martinez, who often directs as well, the film is the best stage yet for his particular brand of ironic comedy. (Hints were easy to spot in the titles of some of his work, such as a 2011 short called “The Howl & the Fussyket.”)
“Septic Tank” is a meta-tale of mega proportions told in a cinema verite style as we follow a young indie filmmaker who’s got an idea for a movie about “poverty porn” –- the horrific idea of desperate mothers driven to sell children for sex to support starving families –- that he’s pitching around town.
It all unfolds over a single day -– the one that will make or break the film -– as the director and his equally young producing partner move closer to their meeting with the acting diva whose participation would almost guarantee festival gold. And Eugene Domingo is their gold -- she is one of the Philippines' most popular actresses, and here she not only plays the various incarnations of that tortured mother that the filmmakers imagine but also a parody of her big-time-actor self.
What makes “Septic Tank” such a fresh breeze is the way in which ideas -– bad ones, good ones, ridiculous ones –- come to life on screen. As the filmmakers roll through various meetings and various insecurities, you literally see the push and pull of all the external and internal forces shaping the film. Take casting the mother, for example. As the filmmakers haggle over which actress should get the role and why -- the director favors the ingenue he's got a crush on, the producer wants the diva whose name will buy them attention -- we see how each one would play out a given moment.
The conceit keeps the film spinning, and as the story shifts through all those ideas and demands, Domingo plays countless different shades of the character and herself. That the filmmakers could pull it off at all is remarkable given all the industry toes and conventions they step on. But it is the way they take the incendiary topic of mothers and children in such desperate straits and find a way to create such a comically biting social commentary on filmmaking that is the triumph here.
Check out the trailer below:
-- Betsy Sharkey
Photo: Hong Kong actor Andy Lau and Philippine actress Eugene Domingo after they were named the most popular actor and actress in online voting for the Asian Film Awards in Hong Kong on Monday. Credit: Kin Cheung / Associated Press