Kusina begins with Juanita (Judy Ann Santos-Agoncillo) walking into an old house, apparently having just come from the market. The film than goes back to the moment of her birth, her mother dying as she is delivered on the kitchen table. The film follows Juanita and her life in this kitchen. She is raised by her grandmother (Gloria Sevilla), who teacher her how to cook. It is where she meets the man that she is eventually going to marry, and another man that will tempt her to consider another life.
The film takes place almost entirely in the kitchen, with just a couple of scenes breaking out of the limited reality of its main character. The subtext isn’t too hard to figure out, the film exploring the idea of a woman’s place in society by itself limiting the environment that it depicts. The film makes no effort to conceal the artificiality of the conceit, instead embracing some of the possibilities of an unreal space. The result has its charms, thanks mainly to the intense efforts of the lead actress. As a whole, it doesn’t quite work, but it is easy to recognize the merit in the ambition.
In contrast to the limited setting, the story’s scope is actually pretty vast. No less than three actresses play the main character, representing her as a child, as a young woman, and an adult. We see her survive the Japanese occupation of the country, and fear for her kids during Martial Law. We watch her grow old, becoming more and more out of touch with everything that’s happening outside the kitchen. Placing the character within a historical context is interesting, but it hardly pays off. It largely becomes window dressing to the much smaller character study happening within the walls.
This is all the film is, ultimately, Juanita representing a version of womanhood that is ultimately shown to be confining and alienating. She is a woman that stays in the kitchen, always ready to greet her family and guests with a steaming plate of food. The film breaks apart that ideal, pursuing the archetype to its logical end. The idea is solid, but the narrative gets waylaid at points, the episodic structure causing the themes to get lost in the mire of extraneous matters. The treatment is intriguing as well, but there are plenty of points where the cracks show.
Still, one must acknowledge the clear skill and thought that was put into the film. The movie is at times bracing, especially when it cuts between time periods. It’s still feels a little long, but there are points of exciting dramatic momentum. And of course, Judy Ann Santos-Agoncillo is just one of the best actresses in the country. The film actually suffers a bit in its first half, just because there are other actresses playing the lead role. When she steps back into the spotlight, the movie is immediately reenergized. She just brings a presence that cannot be matched.
Kusina is a worthy experiment, even though it doesn’t fully work as a feature film. The symbolism is a little on the nose, but confining this character to this one place does create a handful of compelling cinematic possibilities. It lets go of the pretense of realism to get deeper into the life of this one character, the limitations of the set reflecting the limitations of her life. But having said all that, the film is still a mess at times, its story a little too broad, its runtime a little too long. A little more focus might have made these ideas come out clearer.