ASIAN VALUES DVD REVIEW
Babaeng Putik (Woman Of Mud) is an unpretentious yet surprisingly
supple example of the horror genre. Its the story of Mark
(Carlos Morales), a promising college graduate whose girlfriend
plans to bring him to San Francisco... possibly to pursue a medical
career and, eventually, marriage and a family. But none of these
interest Mark; he wants to be a writer - worse, he wants to be a
writer of horror fiction.
He had sent
samples of a story he had been working on to UCLA, and the university
had sent him an application for a writing scholarship. After graduation,
he plans to take time out at his uncles house in the remote
town of San Joaquin, hopefully to finish the story he had started.
He befriends a mysterious wanderer, who gives him a mysterious seed.
He plants the seed under the light of the full moon (after being
given explicit instructions not do exactly that), and a large plant
appears. From this plant drops a large fruit; out of the fruit steps
out a mute and beautifully naked woman Mark names Sally (Klaudia
Koronel). They (of course) have an affair.
The tree and
its fruit of beautiful women is an idea straight out of fairy tales,
which, when you think about it, are potent horror stories all by
themselves (if you dont think so, read the Grimm Brothers
original, unexpurgated version of Little Red Riding Hood, or Cinderella).
The concept of having a horror writer at the center of the fairy
tale is the kind of cute little conceit Stephen King might have
thought up when in one of his more "serious" and "literary"
moods (as a matter of fact, King does get mentioned somewhere in
Even the characters
seem borrowed from Kings novels - Mark, the sensitive and
somewhat passive writer-protagonist, ever concerned with his craft,
with his (God help us) art, seems to have walked out of Kings
The Shining, or The Dark Half, or even The Body. Sally, who becomes
Marks artistic muse, is part "woman with dark powers"
ala Carrie or Firestarter, part plot device to get Marks creative
juices flowing ala Shakespeare In Love.
a very fruitful model for Ilarde to follow - his concept of a serious
writer of horror fiction is an embarrassing collection of cliches
- the need for solitude in "natural" surroundings (Mario
Puzo claimed he had to have the noise of wife and children about
him to write), the need for sexual "inspiration" to get
past a "writers block" (William Burroughs and Philip
K. Dick used drugs). It would have been much more useful if Ilarde
had gone ahead and tried to think through what a horror writer is
a medical student is a step in the right direction - he could have
included a scene where Mark actually asks someone, a professor or
friend, various questions on flesh wounds and decomposition, little
details Mark might have needed for his story. It would have been
just as useful if he had tied in Marks enthusiasm with bow
and arrows to his writing horror - the fact that archery is an ancient
sport with a long history; that arrows can inflict long and lingering
pain as effectively as it can kill. There are so many opportunities
missed to make this film a minor horror gem - instead of the flawed
but surprisingly well-made genre exercise that it is - that you
feel a sense of waste, the same time you feel a sense of surprised
discovery at just how good the film is anyway, despite the flaws.
better model for Ilarde to follow (and he did, to a certain extent)
is exploitation filmmaker Roger Corman - and, in fact, the huge
leafy vegetable out of which Sally steps out of could have come
from Cormans tiny horror classic, Little Shop Of Horrors,
which featured a man-eating plant. Where Kings success has
allowed him to suffer more and more from logorrhea (nowadays his
books run over a thousand pages - or four kilos hardbound, depending
on how you want to measure them), Corman is a master of quickie
low-budget filmmaking. He has enjoyed some successes but never a
huge box-office hit, and this constant persistence on a low-margin
level has taught him how to make films swiftly, with little fat
shows signs of having learnt from Corman: he made Babaeng Putik
for a mere three million pesos, in about 20 days. And while
he doesnt fully escape from the sentimentality of King (the
wanderer gives him the magic seed to "help him with his writing...
by putting him to the test"), Ilarde does give Kings
nonsense the amount of weight and emphasis it deserves - which is
to say, not much.
And yet - sometimes,
somehow - Ilarde is able to transform the material. Early in the
picture, he gives Carlos Morales a sudden and rather arousing impromptu
sex scene to play, and its well done - playful and inventive
(you can tell Ilarde enjoys the lovemaking in his films). Then Ilarde
pans to the wall behind Morales and his girlfriend, and focuses
on an anatomical diagram of a man, with skin pulled open and muscles
and organs exposed.
startling and enigmatic touch, and strangely reassuring, at least
to horror aficionados - it tells you that the director has a few
surprises up his sleeve, a few unknown abilities he wants to show
you. Later, Morales boards a bus to San Joaquin, and the bus emerges
from a bank of thick smoke like a monster out of the jungle mists...
the image is Ilardes way of telling you that Moraless
magic quest has begun, on the back of this ambulatory creature.
casting of Carlos Morales is astute - he hardly looks like your
"sensitive writer" type, and you can believe hes
a mean son of a bitch with a long bow. He looks like he can take
very good care of himself, so when all hell literally breaks loose
and he of all people loses his composure, the sudden vulnerability
is doubly shocking. Ilardes casting of Koronel as Sally, however
(a kind of spiritual sister to Cormans Audrey?), is very possibly
a stroke of genius. Koronel has large eyes, a luscious mouth, and
breasts the size of watermelons; she has the kind of body you literally
cannot believe occurs in real life.
She is a walking erotic joke and, as such, it makes perfect logic
for her to have stepped out of the fruit of an enchanted tree. It
would also make perfect logic for her to function as Marks
erotic fantasy, lending his narrative a psychologically doubtful
air - a suggestion that hes really cracking up from being
alone so long and any moment now hell go sane and make her
vanish into thin air. Marks constantly anxious glances at
her suggest the same unsettling thought keeps occurring to him as
Putiks first half, with its atmospheric imagery and sense
of haunted mystery, is by far the superior half; when the monster
finally makes its appearance, its yet another stuntman wearing
a rubber suit - worse, wearing a rubber suit that looks suspiciously
like the alien in Predator (theres even a sequence on a bridge
that seems like a take-off, or homage to the picture). The characters
introduced dont even do anything more interesting than provide
food for the creatures diet, which apparently consists of
human blood and innards. The rules - so carefully outlined by the
wanderer - are tossed aside and ultimately ignored: "dont
plant under a full moon," "feed it only water and blood,"
"a source of great pleasure and pain."
But even here
Ilarde still manages to keep his visuals clean (cinematography by
Johnny Araojo, who did the camerawork for Mario OHaras
Bagong Hari (A New King)), and his editing coherent. Ilarde
even manages to stage a face-off between monster and a squadron
of civilian vigilantes thats like a take-off on the Rambo
movies (though if the soldiers had displayed even the slightest
knowledge of military tactics the battle would have been less one-sided,
far more interesting).
totally squander the goodwill he built up during the fascinating
first half: he manages to whip up a mildly diverting climax, secure
a small measure of sympathy for the monster, and suggest just the
merest hint of a possible sequel. Not much altogether, and not very
original, but not bad either. Considering the budget, the time constraints,
the weakly developed script, its amazing the film is as good
as it is - better, in fact, than some of the recent big-budgeted
horror flicks that have come out of Hollywood in recent years. Along
with Joyce Bernal for Viva Films, Ilarde is among the best of the
new commercial filmmakers working today; cant wait to see
how his next project turns out.
February, 2002. The article also appears in Noel Vera's Critic After
Dark: A Review Of Philippine Cinema (BigO Books).
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