Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Babaeng Putik (Woman of Mud, Rico Ilarde, 2000)


For Halloween, a reprint of an old article on a minor horror classic

Little flick of horrors

Rico Ilarde’s Babaing Putik (Woman of Mud) is an unpretentious yet surprisingly supple example of the horror genre. It’s 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 uncle’s safehouse 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 don’t 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 the film). Even the characters seem borrowed from King’s 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 King’s The Shining, or The Dark Half, or even “The Body.” Sally, who becomes Mark’s artistic muse, is part ‘woman with dark powers’ a la Carrie or Firestarter, part plot device to get Mark’s creative juices flowing a la Shakespeare in Love.

King isn’t 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 ‘writer’s 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 really like. Making Mark 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 Mark’s 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.

Actually, a 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 Corman’s tiny horror classic Little Shop of Horrors, which featured a man-eating plant. Where King’s 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 success 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 or pretension.

Ilarde, fortunately, shows signs of having learned from Corman: he made Babaeng Putik for a mere three million pesos, in about twenty days. And while he doesn’t fully escape from the gassy 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 King’s 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 it’s 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. It’s a 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 Ilarde’s way of telling you that Morales’ magic quest has begun, on the back of this ambulatory creature.

Ilarde’s casting of Carlos Morales is astute--he hardly looks like your ‘sensitive writer’ type, and you can believe he’s 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. Ilarde’s casting of Koronel as Sally, however (a kind of spiritual sister to Corman’s 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 Mark’s erotic fantasy, lending his narrative a psychologically doubtful air--a suggestion that he’s really cracking up from being alone so long and any moment now he’ll go sane and make her vanish into the thin air. Mark’s constantly anxious glances at her suggest the same unsettling thought keeps occurring to him as well.

Babaing Putik’s first half, with its atmospheric imagery and sense of haunted mystery is by far the superior half; when the monster finally makes its appearance, it’s yet another stuntman wearing a rubber suit--worse, wearing a rubber suit that looks suspiciously like the alien in Predator (there’s even a sequence on a bridge that seems like a take-off, or homage to the picture). The characters introduced don’t even do anything more interesting than provide food for the creature’s diet, which apparently consists of human blood and innards. The rules--so carefully outlined by the wanderer--are tossed aside and ultimately ignored (“don’t 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 O’Hara’s 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 that’s 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). Ilarde doesn’t totally squander the good will 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, it’s 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 the best of the newest commercial filmmakers working today; can’t wait to see how his next project turns out.

First published in Menzone 2002

Reprinted in my book Critic After Dark: A Review of Philippine Cinema

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

209Caught this on cable tv. It was very well-made. Shocked to find out it was a 12 year old film. Any idea how Ilarde managed to get an odd film such as this approved by the studios?

Noel Vera said...

Oh, the producer Mother Lily's nuts; she will produce anything, not just what makes money. I mean--Sister Stella L, Manila By Night, Scorpio Nights, this, Sisa, and Pangarap ng Puso? But that's why her catalogue is so much more impressive than, say, Viva's, Star Cinema's, or the former GMA Studios'.

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