Life, death, and food intermingle in the first sequence of the Cinemalaya 2016 entry Kusina. This can even summarize the entire movie.
Now, before you get any ideas that this is a Filipino version of Alfonso Arau-helmed Like Water for Chocolate or Ang Lee-directed Eat Drink Man Woman—it is not. Screenwriter Cenon Palomares won the grand prize at the 56th Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature for this script in 2006. A decade later, Palomares co-directed with David Corpuz.
The setting is in a family kitchen, all the storytelling happens within its four walls. Though many factors and situations and words outside of the most active room in the Filipino home, the film only covers those that happen in the kitchen. It is an ingenious concept, more akin to the stage. It is also shot in an improvised set, a studio made to look like a house, that recalls a device most recently used by director Jun Lana in Anino sa Likod ng Buwan.
Though the film is Judy Ann Santos-Agoncillo’s, the entire production is exemplary in all its many details that work together well—thanks to the tandem directors.
The story starts with the passing of Emilia (Angeli Bayani), as she is giving birth to her unica hija, Juanita. From then, Juanita must learn to contend with a distant father, Puten (Bong Cabrera), and learn from her grandmother Inang (Gloria Sevilla). Juanita eventually marries Joem Bascon's character named Peles.
EXEMPLARY PERFORMANCES. Princess Ortiz, as the young Juanita, is impressive. She is convincing as a little girl who is trying to win her father’s love but she does not revert to the annoying sing-songy portrayal that has become, sadly, what has been passed off as cute child-acting today. She holds her own in scenes with Gloria Sevilla and Bong Cabrera. Though the story stalls and sputters here, there are many thoughtful moments between Juanita and Inang, their sincerity as grandmother and grandchild shine through.
Cooking becomes a way for Inang to teach Juanita other lessons, and in so doing, Juanita learns to impart a portion of herself to her loved ones who partake of her dishes.
Juanita grows up during the Japanese Occupation in the 1940s. The relatively idyllic life of the family is shattered by World War II. The story traces her maturity until Judy Ann plays the lead character. She is in her fighting form. Though she has grown as an actress before our very eyes, Judy Ann surprises with a performance beyond her nuanced expressions and tear-filled eyes.
During the most gut-wrenching scene in Kusina, Judy Ann writhes and wails in the way that the pain she feels inside manifests and tries to escape from her body. This is not soap opera television acting, it is convincing method acting, it seems.
But the rest of the ensemble essay their roles very well. There are no small actors here, all of them play off each other.
One especially poignant and very dramatic scene involves Juanita and her son Adrian (Mike Liwag) with girlfriend Marian (Isha Salic). It is filled with suspense and sadness and anguish—all in a few minutes and in a very limited space. But it bursts at the seams with emotions.
ARTISTIC ELEMENTS. The production design by Ericson Navarro is exceptional. The details come together to make a visually appealing backdrop that at once contributes but does not take away from every scene. He is able to update the elements to indicate passage of time, going from palayok to metal cookware, from an ice box to a refrigerator, and tapayan (terracotta water vessels) to modern containers.
The design on the apron that Inang wears also changes over time, some echo the motifs of the scene.
The cinematography by Lee Meily is appropriate for scenes: casting shadows and trailing only a spotlight on Judy Ann in a very important quiet scene, letting in sunlight, or keeping the inside dark. Even in its starkness between darkness (in the beginning) and bathed in light (in the last scene), the cinematography communicates and echoes emotions.
An important motif is the old folks’ practice of throwing rock salt in the area after someone dies. Though it may be unfamiliar to many, it can be seen as a cleansing as well as a symbol for tears shed for the loved ones.
CHARACTERISTICALLY FILIPINO. The dishes in the movie represent different people and situations in the life of Juanita and her family. From rice—the first dish that she is taught to make by her grandmother—to dessert—leche flan, for its sweetness and fine ingredients—each dish plays an integral part.
The film is culturally and historically grounded, spanning until the period after Martial Law in the Philippines. Many lessons may still resonate and be applied to the present day setting. In this way, the story transcends the personal and familial and crosses over to the national.
To the directors’ credit, their debut film is able to combine all the film elements to make a satisfying symphony or, in a manner of speaking, sumptuous meal. The acting from each actor and actress is convincing, relatable, heart-rending, and evocative. But never does it get hysterical or predictable.
In fact, some moments of quiet where things are left unsaid or small gestures take the place of dialogue are the most piercing. There are even camera angles that are so well orchestrated that the elements onscreen all draw focus to the person or lack of it.
Sometimes, the musical score can be unpredictable, but when there is music in a scene, it is unobtrusive and serves to enhance the emotions onscreen. The transitions from one scene or period of time to the next are seamless, sometimes jarring, but very ingenious as well. Sometimes, only a tiny detail changes but this connotes a passage of time.
The directors use closeups and cutaways and wide shots effectively, but there are times when the camera stays too long on capturing the angle as a tableau, it makes one wonder if they did not have time to shoot more closeups.
Kusina combines the gentle storytelling approach associated with theater and the visual and auditory elements of film to tell an emotional story.
This Cinemalaya entry is the perfect comeback for Judy Ann Santos-Agoncillo and directorial debut for Cenon Palomares and David Corpuz.
Kusina is one of nine full-length entries competing in the 12th edition of the Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival that will run from August 5-14, 2016.
(To learn more about this year’s entries, read: Cinemalaya 2016 loses one entry; Nora Aunor, Judy Ann Santos among stars featured in 12th edition)
Ed's Note: The "PEP Review" section carries the views of individual reviewers, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the PEP editorial staff.