‘Ang Babae Sa Septic Tank 2’ (2016): hilarious, perceptive, timely

The sequel is a timely, self-aware parody, justified in its adoption (and adaptation) of the original film’s formula.

Gui Adorno, Cai Cortez, Kean Cipriano, and Khalil Ramos in Ang Babae sa Septic Tank 2 (2016).

The proposition of Ang Babae Sa Septic Tank 2 is simple: to parody mainstream romances, in the same way that the original satirized the indie ‘poverty porn’. (The parody begins in the subtitle, #ForeverIsNotEnough, a tongue-in-cheek take on recent rom-coms’ fondness for hashtags.) The final product utilizes the formula established by the original, but a combination of sharp, self-conscious execution and a perfect setting for the film’s release means that Septic Tank 2, like the first film, has the potential to be effective in a manner that goes beyond the work itself.

Warning: this review shares details of plot and other elements, or ‘spoilers’, both for this film and the original, Ang Babae Sa Septic Tank (2011).

The similarities between Septic Tank 2 and the original film begin with the set of main characters and their main concerns. Director and writer Rainier’s (Kean Cipriano) latest film project is about a marriage on the line. His realist vision for the film clashes with the ‘suggestions’ of his lead actress, Eugene Domingo (portraying herself; and again in an impressive performance showcasing an amazing range). This clash provides the main driving force of the film. The director-actor differences are mediated by the line producer Jocelyn (Cai Cortez), who is promoted here from her non-speaking role in the original film, where she was a production assistant. Jocelyn, concerned primarily with securing the actor’s commitment and getting the project off the ground, consents to Eugene’s veiled demands, much to Rainer’s frustration. Jocelyn’s production assistant role is taken over by Lennon (Khalil Ramos), and it is a role which seems to be cursed with selective mutism—perhaps as a tribute to PAs and the other unsung heroes of film production.

The setting of most of Septic Tank 2‘s meta-story is a posh wellness center, an elegant location that mirrors Eugene’s mansion in the middle section of Septic Tank 1—both in appearance, with its clean, white interiors, and in function, as a blank canvas or limbo where the filmmakers discuss the film-within-the-film.

Humor, of course, is the biggest selling point of either film, and in this sequel, the laughter peaks in Eugene’s ‘school of acting’ scene. While it is a reuse and expansion of the same gag in the original, the updated context and extended antics nevertheless delivers the promised laughs to audiences.

A subtler variety of humor accompanies the gradual transformation of the film-within-the-film, which comprises the underlying structure of both films’ program of parody. (The inner film’s title, The Itinerary, like the 2011 film’s Walang-wala, is another crack at genre conventions; this one hits at recent rom-coms’ fondness for tourist locations.)

A final shared feature between Septic Tank 2 and the original is the ironic cost or tragedy that befalls the filmmakers. In the 2011 film, it was the first-hand experience of ‘third-world problems’ that the filmmakers were bent so much on exploiting for their ambitious and artistic yet arrogant ends; in Septic Tank 2, it is the director’s realization that, as he crusades against escapism in his craft, he has unwittingly relied on filmmaking as his own mode of escape from personal struggles.

With Septic Tank 2 appealing to audiences who champion alternative cinema, the audiences who are quick to criticize the conventions of mainstream, formulaic filmmaking, this is a potentially uncomfortable message—that cinema will always be, at least in part, escapist, regardless of how authentic its aesthetics and intentions are. It is a powerful warning that is easy to overlook, as it comes after an expository conversation between Eugene and Rainier about the merits and pitfalls of indie films, a conversation full of arguments that many in the film’s audience will find familiar, even if it deserves explicit restatement.

Repetitive, but justified

Much of the criticism about Ang Babae sa Septic Tank 2 focuses on its essential repetition of the original film’s formula, which includes a “simplistic” depiction of the issues hounding Filipino cinema. It is true that the film deploys the simplified mainstream-versus-indie dichotomy often used in discussions about the industry, and that in doing so fails to illuminate the nuances of the case. But the film is not an academic dissertation, and so it has the license to simplify things for the sake of retaining its entertainment value, while still effectively raising the awareness of casual viewers who otherwise might not be too concerned about the problems of Filipino cinema.

The “simplistic” criticism can also apply to the meta-story. This is not a weakness, however, because there are not many local films directly discussing cinema itself, and Septic Tank 2 has something to say about the art that the barebones meta-story serves well.

In any case, the reuse of the original film’s formula is more than compensated for by its intelligent, self-aware execution, and, considering the film’s participation in the Metro Manila Film Festival, this adaptation is both appropriate and necessary.

On the execution of the ‘Septic Tank formula’: it deserves pointing out, obvious as it may be to discerning audiences, that the two films adapt to the style of their own subjects of satire. 2011’s Septic Tank had a low-budget look, and the meta-story was minimalist, open-ended and understated, in a fashion that reflects the style of the very type of indie filmmaking it parodies. 2016’s Septic Tank 2, on the other hand, matches the sharp and clean appearance of mainstream films from the likes of Star Cinema. It flows and entertains from start to end, as any good formulaic movie would.

Eugene Domingo and Jericho Rosales in Ang Babae sa Septic Tank 2 (2016).
Eugene Domingo and Jericho Rosales in Ang Babae sa Septic Tank 2 (2016). Screen capture from YouTube/Quantum Films.

Much of the reason for this is that the meta-story, in contrast to the original, includes bells and whistles that recall the standard embellishments of mainstream movies: for example, the existence of Facundo (Gui Adorno), a sidekick character through which Eugene overtly reveals her condescending attitude towards the filmmakers. There is no such explicitness in the 2011 original. There is melodrama in the meta-story, depicting Rainier’s family problems, and while the film is careful in portraying this with restraint, it is nevertheless an element that goes far beyond the minimalism of the original. It lends the meta-story a more complete feel, thereby satisfying conventional, mainstream expectations of a narrative, and adds emotional weight to this film; the original, in contrast, remains mostly an intellectual experience.

The explicitness of Septic Tank 2 is seen clearly in the transformation of the film-within-the-film, from its original, artistic inception by Rainier, to its most conventional, commercialized potential as envisioned by Eugene. 2011’s Septic Tank portrays a similar transformation, but there, the elements are left for the audience to spot. In the sequel, these elements call attention. For example, in the original film, Eugene’s character in Walang-wala starts out wearing tattered clothes and unkempt hair, an authentic portrayal of her character, an urban-poor mother. But when Eugene comments in the meta-story that she has to look good in the film, the next iteration of the film-within-the-film shows her in clean clothes and carefully groomed hair; there is no verbal acknowledgment of this transformation in the film. In Septic Tank 2, Eugene, in the film-within-film, is similarly portrayed with a plain appearance in the original iteration of “The Itinerary”, again an authentic look for the disillusioned character. Between this and the latter iterations, however, there is a joke in the meta-story about Eugene needing to sport a Korean-made wig for the film. And indeed, the next envisioning of “The Itinerary” features Eugene wearing an ostentatious wig.

The ultimate expression of Septic Tank 2‘s explicitness are the conversations between Eugene and Rainier about the value of making indie films, as opposed to escapist mainstream movies. Whereas 2011’s Septic Tank was content in showing, not telling, the issues of indie cinema, the 2016 sequel is almost scared that it will fail to make its audiences discuss the state of cinema—and so it resorts to explicitness. Do we accuse the film of underestimating the intelligence of its viewers? Perhaps not, because the film has the elaborate excuse of simply adapting to its subject matter. And it makes sense, because it is consistent. 2011’s Ang Babae sa Septic Tank was a criticism of the indie scene’s propensity for making poverty porn; the film itself was made in the emerging stereotypical fashions of indie filmmaking, and premiered in Cinemalaya, the country’s foremost independent film festival. 2016’s sequel then aimed at mainstream romances; the film was dressed in the conventions of mainstream-style cinema, and premiered in the Metro Manila Film Festival—a festival that, in the decade or so leading to 2016, has become a showcase for mainstream Filipino cinema.

And this last fact is the final factor for Ang Babae sa Septic Tank 2‘s significance. The 2016 edition of the Metro Manila Film Festival dared to abandon the recent years’ commercialist bent, and showcased a lineup of “technically excellent” films, which meant the rejection of entertaining but essentially escapist, unoriginal, and celebrity-centered film franchises. Septic Tank 2, a witty, self-conscious film, possesses just the perfect form and substance to headline this revolutionary edition of the festival. The film deserves to be watched by every movie-going Filipino, and through this, encourage discussions about the state of Filipino cinema, and ultimately guide the industry’s development of the art form.

To have significant, actual influence on its subject matter—would not that be a satire’s highest achievement and greatest fulfillment?

The featured image for this article is a screen capture from YouTube/Quantum Films.


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