Kusina (2016): intimate yet epic

Kusina is familiar yet fresh, like a favorite childhood dish served with a spectacular new recipe.

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Judy Ann Santos-Agoncillo operating a radio in the kitchen, as Juanita in Kusina (2016). Screen capture from the trailer, youtube.com/watch?v=-oMf5p7D4Tk

Kusina (Her Kitchen) is a film that focuses on the sources of warmth at home: physically, the kitchen, with its fire and the hot meals produced from it; but also figuratively, a mother, whose traditional domain it is to nourish care and affection from the kitchen, where she learns to live and love.

It is a wonder that Filipinos are gifted only now with such an important work of art. Our society, after all, values dishes and dining more than most cultures. Why else would our native language tell us that the liver, and not the heart, is the true seat of affection?

Warning: this review presents a reading of the film, and it necessarily shares details of plot and other elements, or ‘spoilers’.

Central to Kusina is the ploy of being shot almost entirely in a constructed set, the titular kitchen. (Only the very first shot is taken on-location.) The set is superbly constructed, with rich earthly details and the appearance of a kitchen that is actually productive—yet it is often clear to the viewer that the entire setting is artificial. Nothing is visible beyond the windows but blackness (or black cloth, in fact) and the lights change mood and intensity as it would in a theater.

The camera stays in the kitchen, and all events that occur beyond are left to our imagination. And so it is essential that we give in, to suspend our disbelief the moment we enter this fictional kitchen. Once we do, we are rewarded with a story simultaneously familiar yet fresh, like a favorite childhood dish served with a spectacular new recipe.

Kusina revolves around the life of Juanita (Judy Ann Santos-Agoncillo). We first meet her (as a child, played by Princess Ortiz) when she enters the kitchen to see her mother, Emilia (Angeli Bayani), who is dying of childbirth on the dining table. Emilia is losing a lot of blood despite the efforts of her Inang (Gloria Sevilla). Juanita, almost oblivious to this suffering, takes Inang’s bloodied hand to respectfully ask for blessing. In her last words Emilia asks her mother to raise Juanita in the same way she herself was brought up, with the same love and care.

This tragic prologue turns out to be a foreshadowing for Juanita’s entire life, as the bloody episode becomes only the first among many untimely deaths to visit the family. Inang cleans the kitchen with Juanita after her father, Putén (Bong Cabrera), carries her mother’s body out. Inang then takes salt from a jar and throws it over the table and around the floor. It is a ritual for the departed that takes a heavier significance and becomes a more powerful image as various characters perform it throughout the story.

The film is more than a tragedy, however, and it revolves not only around the kitchen. Its story is also weaved through the numerous dishes that Juanita and her family prepares in it. As Inang tells the child when she was only learning to cook, if one could only identify whom a meal is to be cooked for, then everything else will fall into place: what dish to serve, what ingredients to include and how to blend the elements together. Indeed, every plate served and every spoonful tasted in Kusina is a meaningful act that reveals character, and develops relationships:

Juanita cooks breakfast for her father, but Putén, upon seeing it, seems to suddenly remember his wife and he loses his appetite; later, Juanita learns from Inang that her father’s favorite dish is dinuguan, and proceeds to prepare a serving; Putén warms up to the plate, but before he can put the spoon to his mouth, a comrade arrives and informs him of the impending invasion by the Japanese Imperial forces; he never tastes the blood stew, in the same way he is never able to mend his relationship with Juanita; the dish itself even reminds of the bloody demise of his wife…a teenage Juanita (Katrina Legaspi) makes Péles (CJ Navato as a teenager, Joem Bascon as an adult) fall in love with a savory sip of his favorite sinigang…Alejandro (Luis Alandy), whose favorite fare we never discover, tastes Juanita’s sinigang when his friend Péles begs him to—an act of sharing that takes on an ironic implication when he later gets into an affair with Juanita…the favorite treat of Juanita’s daughter Myrna (Elora Españo) is leche flan, but when she attempts to learn how to make it, she fails and grows impatient, and Juanita reprimands her for not working hard enough for what she wants—foreshadowing the way their relationship breaks down in later years, and Myrna herself ironically comes to dedicate her youth and risk her life fighting for an ideology…Inang, when she is content that she has taught everything she could, is served by Juanita with her favorite pinakbet, which they share over a happy dinner together; then she tells her, “Anak, pagod na ako, gusto ka nang magpahinga,” (Child, I’m tired, I want to rest already), before exiting the kitchen and the story…

And most poignant is Juanita’s own specialty, adobo; in her own stubborn way, she never finds the time to cook it for herself, as she works for her family and friends’ satisfaction before her own; Inang, when the couple’s relationship starts falling apart, coaxes Juanita to find her own taste, to cook for herself and thereby discover her own character and give her husband a reason to come back—but circumstance always distracts her; and she finally finds the opportunity to cook for herself, to no one’s taste but her own, only in the afterlife, when all is done. In this supreme symbol of selflessness, the film finds the fulfillment of Inang’s wisdom: that in cooking, one does not only serve, but also reveals one’s self.

Intimate yet epic

Kusina is a family drama, and typical of the genre, it explores the passage of time as spanned by the multiple generations of a family. This takes a particularly interesting form in the film, where the constraint of the setting forces us to gaze at details to see the evidences of time. Technology transforms the kitchen, and pots and wooden fire are silently succeeded by a gas stove and a refrigerator.

The film may be confined by four walls and a few windows, but it is not isolated from history. We witness Juanita’s family directly affected by events in the nation’s life. Japanese forces ransack the house during the Second World War, confiscating food; only a smudging of charcoal from the kitchen on Juanita’s face saves her from abuse by the soldiers. Putén dies in the Death March. Decades later, Myrna gifts her mother with a radio. When she goes underground as activists are persecuted under the Marcos regime, the radio becomes Juanita’s window to the world; we even hear a broadcast of the dictator’s infamous proclamation of martial law.

Katrina Legaspi and CJ Navato wearing wedding costumes in the kitchen; screen capture from the Kusina (2016) trailer, youtube.com/watch?v=-oMf5p7D4Tk
Katrina Legaspi and CJ Navato as young Juanita and Péles in Kusina (2016). Screen capture from the trailer, youtube.com/watch?v=-oMf5p7D4Tk

All these episodes, both the small moments and the big days of a family’s life: breakfast and visitors and quarrels; birth and wedding and death; this story that spans through the decades goes through a full house of emotions, through joy, grief, hope and more. Kusina may be intimate in space, but it is epic in time.

(It is irresistible to contrast this film with Dagsin, another full-length entry in Cinemalaya 2016. Both are family dramas where the Second World War and Martial Law periods play an important part. However, whereas Dagsin is direct and shows us, for instance, Japanese soldiers in a prisoner camp, Kusina dutifully portrays everything from Juanita’s kitchen. The latter demands more from the viewer, but granting that, it has arguably the more rewarding and more sublime approach.)

To stage or to film?

A common comment about Kusina is that, given its single-setting contrivance, it might have been better if it was staged rather than filmed. However, the screenplay has always been meant to be filmed, not staged. Let us consider the values of this pursuit.

While the constructed kitchen is richly-detailed, in the grander scheme of films Kusina has minimalist settings. It allows an incredible amount of attention to be lavished upon every nook and cranny of the set, an economy of environments that is increasingly precious in movies these days. (The sound design of the film notably shares this minimalism. Beyond the necessary sound effects, only a few, conservative strains of music are heard, and only in the most crucial of scenes.) Appropriately, the constructed set is porous, missing coverings on the windows and some panels on the walls: it allows the camera’s gaze to literally and metaphorically peek into a family’s complicated life.

Despite the spatial limitations, Kusina effectively exercises cinematography. In a particularly well-framed scene, Juanita’s son Adrian (Mike Liwag) enters the kitchen with his girlfriend Marian (Isha Salic), and hopes to introduce her properly to his mother, although Juanita is consumed with worry about Myrna. The camera peers through the horizontal shelves of the kitchen, placing Juanita on the left-third section; she is also facing to the left, busily operating the radio, scanning for any news about her daughter who is evading the martial-law authorities. Adrian is to the right, behind his mother, and his girlfriend is still further behind, near the edge of the frame. He is telling Juanita all about Marian, how they met, how she also loves to cook and how caring she is, like Juanita—but his mother does not hear him, or perhaps she does not want to believe what she is hearing. It is revealed that Adrian is about to elope with Marian, and as he says goodbye, he motions as if to embrace his mother. But he hesitates, then leaves, the space between them unbridged. It is a powerful shot, serviced by a masterful composition.

Similarly, the theater-like confines of Kusina do not limit movement for its actors as it would in an actual stage setting. Because the camera can follow them closely, their gestures and motions do not have to be exaggerated to be visible. In fact it emancipates their acting range. (Judy Ann Santos-Agoncillo in the main role fulfills expectations, as she goes from subtle to full melodramatic.) Even in blocking, there are unique opportunities: in the sequence where Myrna gives Juanita a radio, Myrna’s face is hidden for most of the first half of the scene. She is either facing away from the camera, or she is blocked by a prop as she sits—until her patience runs out because of Juanita’s admonishing. She stands up and her face is finally shown, symbolic of her claiming her own ground, before she answers her mother, and is bitterly slapped.

Indeed, the medium empowers Kusina to speak to its audience in such beautiful, exclusively cinematic ways.

Much more can be said about the film’s various elements, but ultimately it boils down to the same pattern. Everything about it is familiar, all the ingredients are tried and true. Yet, in its final concoction, it works anew, and it connects deeply. The warmth and love overflows in this cinematic serving. Kusina, without conditions or qualifications, is a great film.

Kusina is directed by Cenon Obispo Palomares and David R. Corpuz. It is adapted from a screenplay by Palomares that earned first prize in the Filipino screenplay category at the 56th Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature.

The images used in this article are screen captures from the film’s official trailer, and the author claims their publication here to be within the limits of fair use.

Author: DJ

Scribbles about films and other fabrications.

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