The Woman in the Septic Tank
Film festivals are as regular as bodily functions (some more literally than others). Case in point: I have yet to see Marlon Rivera’s The Woman in the Septic Tank, nor Noboru Iguchi’s Zombie Ass: Toilet of the Dead, but thanks to the fecal-friendly folk of Fantasia—2012 edition, in progress, now through August 7—my ignorance may soon be rectified. To characterize Montreal’s beloved genre-mash-up as mere scatology would mislead. You need to dig deeper into the dictionary of perversion to find a broader concept-slash-condition, something like paraphilia (which is not, BTW, in the OED). “A biomedical term,” says Wikipedia’s crowd-sourced syntax, “used to describe sexual arousal to objects, situations, or individuals that are not part of normative stimulation and that may cause distress or serious problems for the paraphiliac or persons associated with him or her.” Not part of normative stimulation. Bingo.
Copious quantities of drugs and alcohol are not (generally) part of normative stimulation (either). However, when such morally suspect excess occurs within a certain joie-de-cinema framework, we’ll give it a pass. Two very fine examples, semi-randomly culled from the more than 300 titles on offer [thanks, Mitch!], demand immediate attention: Khavn de la Cruz’s Mondomanila and Jason Banker’s Toad Road. The former, by a Filipino director that FC’s own Olaf Möller has dubbed “a prankster punk [and] an ass-kicking rebel priest,” has been floating around as a short since 2004. Somewhere along the way it received a shot in the arm from the Hubert Bals Fund, which helped transform it into an award-winning feature-length rough cut. Khavn finally finished the thing for an official debut earlier this year at Rotterdam. (Banker’s flick—which, according to IMDb, was paradoxically completed in 2013—had its world premiere at Fantasia on July 26.) Both are quasi-documentary, and both make for excellent arguments against having children—or at least against having teenagers.
Manila, as seen through Khavn’s perpetually roving all-access eye, is a filthy, dangerous, drug-addled, birth-defected, pedophilic playground. The film dips into the modern city briefly but spends the majority of its time wallowing in the decrepitude of the shanty slums. The core ensemble of hyperactive youth—aka The Paranoid Squad—are introduced individually in pseudo-MTV fashion: we see their nicknames and defining characteristics super-imposed onscreen: “Tony D: Leader of the Paranoid Squad, spunky badass junkie”; “Muse: Toastmaster, partner in crime, duck egg vendor”; “Patotok: Squatterpunk, hates filthy pussies”; etc.
The squad dash about their chaotic daily lives, while Khavn cuts between multiple exterior locations and their home base, a claustrophobic hideout reminiscent of the secreted dead-end interiors that the great South African photographer Roger Ballen creates. The boys try to make the best of some very bad situations, and what emerges, by film’s end, is not only a tale of perseverance, but an indestructible demonstration of positive thinking, reinforced by a musical number (featuring much dancing with colorful umbrellas) in which the chorus provides us all with an infectious mantra: “Hello Day! Hello Sun! Hello Everyday!” Don’t look for an immediate surge in Philippine tourism.
You don’t have to travel to Southeast Asia to experience a vibrant teenage wasteland; you can just as easily log onto MySpace (where American director Jason Banker apparently went to cast the remarkable Toad Road). To save on production travel expenses, Banker somehow used the passé social-media site to find young residents within a 45-minute radius of the Pennsylvania location where his film is set. He then filtered that group by identifying those who had “friended” VICE magazine and, voila, Instacast. The urban legend from which the film takes it name concerns an abandoned asylum and the series of gates on the namesake road one must pass through to get there. Each gate brings with it new terrors—real and/or imagined.
Just like the Paranoid Squad in Khavn’s film, Banker’s posse of cheerfully nihilistic youth have found little to do with themselves except devise inventive ways to accelerate their own brain-cell loss. I am particularly intrigued by a technique involving the improper use of Vicks inhalers, but I suspect it will be hard to find someone to help me experiment (the procedure involves the determined effort of two people). This is participatory cinema in the Larry Clark mode, and when it works, which is often, the sense is not so much of an observer granted privileged access but of a camera that isn’t there. The unabashed “actors,” particularly James Davidson and Sarah Jones, who fumble their way into a picture-perfect non-relationship, are extraordinarily artless (that’s a good thing).
Chemically altered perception can come with its own attendant horror, and Banker’s oblique application of genre motifs serves to beg the question: are bad things really happening or is this just a bad trip? There are flash-cut glimpses of what may be “actual” supernatural nastiness, but, if anything, they tend to neutralize the tension. The film’s 75-minute running time indicates that the director perhaps discovered this less-is-more tendency and acted upon it by removing all but the barest trace of the film’s literal terror during the editing process. In so doing Banker finds a canny yet vertiginous doc-horror edge to perch upon. He may manage to alienate two distinct camps of film audiences—but that’s their loss.
The above post has been a teaser. Please stay tuned for a proper Fantasia roundup after the festival concludes. Further films to be discussed include Buddy Giovinazzo’s Night of Nightmares, Charles de Lauzirika’s Crave (with a supporting turn from Ron Perlman, and a jaw-dropping sequence involving Edward Furlong split in half by a chainsaw—oops), two Iguchi films (Zombie Ass and Dead Sushi), another dead-fish feature (Kern Saxton’s Sushi Girl), a dead neo-nationalist flick (Koji Wakamatsu’s 11/25 The Day Mishima Chose His Own Fate), a dead-baby tale (Eron Sheean’s Errors of the Human Body), an animated bully film (Yeun Sang-ho’s King of Pigs), an actual paraphile documentary (Allison de Fren’s The Mechanical Bride), a live-action-role-play thing (don’t even ask), and dozens more. Sit tight.