A Softer World
by Don Jaucian
D: Adolf Alix, Jr.
C: Cherry Pie Picache, Bembol Rocco, Rosanna Roces, Anita Linda, Arnold Reyes, Angel Aquino, Evelyn Vargas, Allan Paule
It’s a little disconcerting to watch the first few minutes of Isda (The Fable of the Fish) after watching Ang Babae sa Septic Tank (The Woman in the Septic Tank), a film that parodies poverty porn filmmaking in independent cinema today. In its first few minutes, Isda eases itself into the dumpsite in Catmon, Malabon, welcoming Lina (Cherry Pie Picache) and Miguel (Bembol Roco) in a neighborhood frenzy where a man hostages his son. Parts of the dumpsite burn while people scavenge, hoping to stumble upon a small fortune that will put food on their tables, at least for the day. It paints a picture of a hard and brutal life, almost hopeless at some point.
But eventually, you’ll realize that the dump site is just part of the reality these people inhabit. The film does not ram the stink and the hopelessness of the place down your throat. It does not appear garish or repulsive. Instead, the dump site often appears as a common ground where people make do with what they have to go on with their lives. It even appears like a geographic formation, carved out of remains of some dying world, consumed by the ravages of time.
Men go on in their usual round of drinks of gin bilog and a handful of peanuts after work (if they have one), children play in mounds of trash and the women work on their usual household tasks, minding the children and cooking food for their families. But in between these moments of silent work, the women have a little community of their own where they play bingo games, share stories, sexual experiences, and give whatever advice they have to each other.
It is this almost mythic bond that Isda treads, placing much of the weight of the events in the hands of the powerful women who seemingly shun male influence. We hardly see the men in their lives as imposing figures of the family. Even when Lina is giving birth, or during the baptism of her child, the women treat these rites with a certain tone of reverence.
When Lina and Miguel, and eventually their neighbors, discover that the child (who Lina later names Miguelito) they are expecting is actually a fish, it’s only natural that Miguel treats it as an affront to his sexuality. But Lina accepts it undoubtedly, treating Miguelito as if he was an actual child. Even though she does not express it overtly, we see how Lina have always wanted a child of her own, looking longingly at kids and almost jealous of women who breastfeed their young.
She gets support from some of the most important women around her (played by Alix regulars Anita Linda, Angel Aquino, Rosanna Roces, and Evelyn Vargas). They huddle around her, forming a fiercely protective bubble, echoing maternal sentiments and even volunteering as Miguelito’s godmothers.
It’s a situation that will eventually wind down to comedy but Alix creates a film so lovingly crafted you can’t help but admire its beauty in its most quiet and intimate moments. Alix knows how to tell a story well and he does not let his focus stray, adding layers that give depth to Lina’s plight. With Jerry B. Geracio’s graceful script (based on his own short story, which is in turn, inspired by an actual feature in Inday Badiday’s Eye to Eye back in the 80s), Isda remarkably blends superstition, magic, and the obtrusiveness of reality.
Isda's story pushes the psychological boundaries that a mother will tread just to show her love for her child, whether it is human or not. And it's up to us, carrying our prejudices and beliefs that we grew up with, whether to believe her or not.