Nurture is the sweeping theme that fuels this brave cinematic experiment. In its every yarn-spinning stride, Corpuz and Palomares' "Kusina" is meticulously conceptualized. I was hooked from beginning to end.
The story follows Juanita (Judy Ann Santos-Agoncillo) from her precarious arrival on a kitchen table. As mother Emilia (Angeli Bayani) succumbs to childbirth, the young and cheerful girl (Princess Ortiz) is left to the care of her grandmother (Gloria Sevilla). Puten (Bong Cabrera) mostly ignores his daughter. But her Inang often reminds her of her father's loss and inconsolable grief.
Influenced by the doting grandma, Juanita spends most of her time learning the joys and clutter of gastronomy.
Time moves along. Juanita grows into a peppy teenage girl (Katrina Legaspi). She meets and falls in love with handsome engineer Peles (CJ Navato) who eventually marries her. A daughter (Elora Espano) comes into their lives. They would live happily ever after, but things don't always turn out the way we want them to.
Peles (Joem Bascon) hardly comes home anymore. Somehow, Juanita longs for her husband's affection. But Alejandro (Luis Alandy), Peles' friend, comes into the picture. He falls for Juanita and insinuates himself into the household, Juanita's loneliness turns into indiscretion; one that bore her a son Adrian. This further strains the couple's relationship. One day, Peles abandons his family altogether. Juanita vows to take care of her family the only way she knows how - through her cooking. Would her affection and determination be enough?
"Kusina" is a master class in theatrical story telling. Though others called it "messy", I celebrate its impeccable composition. Entrenched in a one-piece kitchen set, Juanita's life unravels around this limited space, which is a tall artistic order to pull off. Lars von Trier employed this style in "Dogville". The kitchen essentially becomes an important actor in the movie.Take note that the film has a single exterior shot: As Juanita carries a basketful of goods, she ushers us into her home.
A TOUCH OF OZU AND HIS ELLIPSES
As the story progresses, touches of director Yasujiro Ozu's style emerge. His narrative artifice never conforms to the usual convention. He'd occasionally employ static transitions between scenes. But what we've noticed, as consequence of a single set, is his figurative "tatami shots". He would use ellipses, i.e. the decision not to show major events in the story. To eschew a few key scenes, he would pass over moments that would otherwise stir excessive emotional reaction. The effect is more staggering because the audience is tasked to imagine. And nothing supersedes the power of imagination.
In the movie, these ellipses occur outside the camera frame: fighter planes heralding the arrival of the Japanese; soldiers ransacking the neighborhood; a festive wedding is being celebrated; people scurrying off to Bataan, Isabela or the mountains of Sierra Madre; military personnel arriving outside to capture the boy who eloped with a general's daughter, etc.
Another stroke of inspiration - the assignation of a character's favorite food: dinuguan with puto for Puten; pinakbet for Inang; Adrian's ginataang monggo and sapin-sapin; Myrna's leche flan; Alejandro's biko; and the dish that never gets served until the very end - adobo! Attributing catharsis in a serving of adobo is nothing short of brilliant.
Even the costume changes are deliberately planned, probably to signify hierarchy, permanence or even mood or state of mind: gray for Inang; blue for Puten; bluish green for Alejandro; pink for Myrna; and hues of brown for Juanita. This story telling method inspires expostulations from a myopic audience (i.e. those noisy geriatric audience in Glorietta during our Cinemalaya viewing), but let's leave them to their naivete. Even Toni Munoz's music is well conceived as it calls attention to itself, thus it avoids overpowering a scene.
These elements allow us to concentrate on the motivations, missteps, and reflections of its central character. The film delves deeply into Juanita's human frailty and strengths. Inherent traits sometimes dictate a character's tragedy or victory. More importantly, there are aspects in life that require attention other than servitude. Humanity is a complex creature that also requires nourishment of the other aspects outside physical sustenance, the same way that society has concerns outside the dimensions of peace and security as prerequisite for development. We aren't fulfilled by mere food or affection alone. These are realizations ponderously derived from Juanita's life.
In Kusina, Judy Ann Santos-Agoncillo delivers a complete character exposition. We see her evolve. We become witness to her joys, frustration, pride and defeat. She is, in fact, a virtual force of nature. If there's an injustice in the world, it is the fact that a film festival's best feature didn't win a single award at the Cinemalaya.