(Reprinted from my previous blog)
Wenn V. Deramas' Tanging Ina is a surprisingly supple, surprisingly well-made, comedy that turns on the acting and comic talents of the decidedly unglamorous Ai-Ai de Las Alas. Ai-Ai is an odd combination: generous bosom and glamour-girl legs attached to cartoon mug and horsey jaw; you can see why men would find her attractive enough to make their wife, the same time God would find her funny-looking enough to be the butt of some of his less-than-kindly jokes.
The first twenty minutes are the film's high point. Deramas uses the standard tropes of Filipino comedy: speeded-up slapstick, absurdist imagery, semaphoring silent acting; what distinguishes his use of these devices from the usual Filipino director's is that it's all in the service of creating a genuinely complex and fairly original comic character: the mother as hapless creature of fate, doing her best to keep her sizable chin above the water as she marries one husband after another, is widowed in a number of rather ingenious ways (one drops dead from a heart attack; another falls from the balcony of a movie theater during a panic stampede; yet another is electrocuted at their wedding reception), each leaving her with an ever increasing number of children.
Along the way Deramas (using a script from Mel Mendoza del Rosario--one of the better comedy writers working in the industry today--and Keiko Aquino) scores satiric points: the tendency of Filipinos to produce unbelievably large families (Ai-Ai eventually ends up with a dozen kids), the mad scramble for decent jobs in an increasingly indecent economy; the value put on displayable material wealth and "face," or surface respectability. Some of the better jokes include Ai-Ai naming her children after numbers (Juan (Marvin Agustin), after "one;" Portia (Heart Evangelista) from "por" or "four"); an excellent Dennis Padilla as her latest suitor, a taxi driver with an appealingly maniacal twinkle in his eye and a penchant for showing up in his knight-errand taxi at the right place and the right time; and, of course, the film's title, which literally means "true Mother," the same time it's a pun on an obscenity that means: "whore mother."
The film doesn't sustain the comic momentum: about two-thirds of the way the picture seriously sags from all the tearjerking drama, meant to underline Ai-Ai's plight and suffering (they could have underlined it and still made it funny). Some of the satire isn't as pointed as it could be--Heart Evengelista could have really gone to town on her materialistic Portia, who expects her mother to fork out enough cash for her swanky debut birthday party, but other than some deft slapstick she does little else; no connection is made between Ai-Ai's troubles and the Catholic Church's medieval policies on birth control; and an incident involving a terrorist bomber seems to come out of left field if one isn't familiar with the turmoil that embroiled Manila at the time the film was made (some political context would have been welcome). Still, this is a film with serious targets that it manages to skillfully skewer at least half the time (most Filipino satires nowadays miss their targets entirely); and in terms of general quality it stands head and shoulders above the standard-issue "toilet humor" or "tits-and-ass" slapstick.
(Film available on Netflix)