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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Monday, December 26, 2016

entry arrow3:03 PM | In the Spa, the Cinematic Hugot Reaches Three Levels

Marlon Rivera’s Ang Babae sa Septic Tank 2: #ForeverIsNotEnough (2016) [trailer here] is one of those rare films that overturn the truism that the sequel must always pale in comparison to what came before. The new film takes the conceit and many of the comedic quirks of the first one — a metanarrative that examines, with the ferocious glee of a butcher, the conditions bedevilling artistic filmmaking in the Philippines — but pushes them in a completely different direction, which proves eventually satisfying.

What results is a film that stands on its own with commanding assurance, but also manages to be complementary to the original, which took the Cinemalaya Film Festival by a “shit-storm,” pardon the expression, in 2011. I like this new film very much. It made me laugh so hard. It made me take note of Rivera’s superb artistic choices. It deepened more my own considerations of the many issues that plague Philippine cinema today — one, in particular, that mirrors so well the current battle of sensibilities that the new Metro Manila Film Festival finds itself in: are you “indie” or are you “mainstream,” and can the two ever reconcile?

That question, and the many others that lurk below that divisive argument, lies at the heart of the new story. We begin like in the previous film: we still follow three intrepid independent filmmakers (Kean Cipriano returning as Direk Rainier, Cai Cortes returning as producer Jocelyn, and Khalil Ramos joining the cast in the place of JM de Guzman, and this time taking on Ms. Cortes’ silent role in the previous film — which is such a delicious change, since Ms. Cortes can dish it out so well in dialogue, proving once and for all that she is a comedienne for our times, and one who really needs better recognition for elevating many of the thankless roles she often gets to play in films). They are on a quest to sign the movie star Eugene Domingo for another film. Ms. Domingo, playing a hard-sell version of her film persona, had won plaudits and awards from all over the world for starring in Walang Wala, where she had “allowed” herself to be immersed in a septic tank; this time around, she might agree to take on the role of a melancholy wife ruminating on a troubled marriage, visiting Baguio with her estranged husband to see once more the sites they once enjoyed together during their honeymoon years ago. But the Baguio of their old romance is gone, replaced by traffic, trash, and too many tourists.

After reading the script, Ms. Domingo bites. She needs a comeback after some years of staying away from the spotlight — and she wants to do this film, titled The Itinerary, to be that vehicle. And so she has invited all three filmmakers to The Farm at San Benito, a fabulous resort spa for the rich and famous, where they could talk about the story over relaxation therapy, deep-tissue massage, and full-on colon cleansing.

The film follows that conversation, as our characters — along with Ms. Domingo’s faithful Spanish butler Facundo, who absolutely steals every scene he is in — go from one treatment to the next, wrestling ever so “gently” with each other over how the film should unfold. Direk Rainier is adamant about staying true to the starkness and grimness of his vision, the film being his rumination over his own crumbling marriage. But Eugene Domingo would have none of that, preferring instead the sensibilities of escapist fluff that is sure to make good box-office — but she is careful to always end her “suggestions” to the increasingly frustrated director with what becomes the film’s long-running, passive aggressive joke of a line: “They’re just suggestions, direk. Because what do I know, I’m just an actress.”

And so Joel Torre playing her husband becomes Jericho Rosales. And so the film suddenly gets a theme song — the “Forever is Not Enough” of the subtitle [music video here!]. And so we get further changes in the make-up of the story that involves sunset kisses, gay best friends, and romantic chases in the foggy woody areas of Camp John Hay. The film’s strength is in the comical rendering of these rapid changes in the narrative and filming style, just like in the original. In the 2011 film, we got Eugene Domingo amply demonstrating the three levels of acting. Here, we get three levels of “hugot,” and it is performed so fantastically to so much comedic effect — both in the telling and in the dramatic rendering of the film-within-the-film — that by the end of the sequence, everyone in the theater I was in hooted with so much laughter.

You would think that a movie set mostly in a spa would become too confining in terms of mise-en-scène, but no. I found the use of the spa as good metaphor for the unraveling of their conversation slash negotiation: the deeper and more invasive the treatments they have, the more sanitized the prospective script becomes. Even Ms. Domingo’s actress knows this too well: "I understand metaphors, direk,” she says at one point. She also perfectly understands the trauma she had gone through before, being buried in a sea of feces — the price of the “poverty porn” she had to make in the name of “award-winning independent filmmaking” — and so she is now adamant that this “comeback,” this next phase of her filmmaking life must be all about “cleansing” and being “antiseptic,” quite literally in fact. The spa is a perfect embodiment for all that. Besides, it is also a perfect throwback to film history: filmmakers in crises seem to head to spas in the movies — taking note of Federico Fellini’s tortured director in 8 1/2, as well as similar figures such as in Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth and Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories.

This is screenwriter Chris Martinez returning to form in his cinematic storytelling, and the film reminds us that he had entertained us so well in 100 and Here Comes the Bride. This is also director Marlon Rivera’s full blossoming: every inch of the film is tightly considered — take a look, for example, at the surprise musical interlude that comes in the middle of the film, which sneaks in very organically; all this is indicative of a filmmaker in control of all his elements.

In the end, a complex post-modern narrative becomes seamless entertainment that not only satisfies the comedy fix we are looking for, but also makes us ask questions about the nature of the films we are making in the Philippines today. But where’s the septic tank of the title, you ask? Be patient, in the end it shows itself and becomes just rewards.

The film is currently screening at Cinema 3 at Robinsons Movieworld Dumaguete.


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