Something feels right about seeing Judy Ann Santos-Agoncillo on screen. Kusina (Eng. title: Her Kitchen) opens with her giving a smile, and her presence alone commands attention; immediately we are drawn in. We don’t see her again until much later, and while the scenes without her work adequately, the film only picks up momentum the instant she reappears. I am saying all of these at the risk of sounding like a fluff piece about the comeback movie of an actress considered the best of her generation (and I’ve never been one to dwell on acting in my reviews), but I believe recognizing Santos-Agoncillo’s talent is mandatory in this case as the emotional weight of the film is carried by her performance.
Kusina centers on Juanita, who is played by Santos-Agoncillo. Born on a kitchen table, her fate seems intertwined with that room. She devotes herself to cooking the favorite dishes of her loved ones, yet for one reason or another, they all manage to slip away. The entire movie is set in one room – the kitchen (hence the title) – as in a stage play. The play-like structure never feels gimmicky but is bound to push the audience’s suspension of disbelief to the limit. While Kusina’s commitment to its structure is commendable, it certainly has its pros and cons.
On the upside, it is refreshing. In contrast to the plentiful plays that have been adapted over time, which translate their scale to a cinematic level, Kusina confines its storytelling in one location. At least thirty years of story is narrated continuously, with only the entrance and exit of characters serving as transitions from one scene to the next. The kitchen does change throughout the years but only slightly and subtly. Viewers must take cues from the dialogue, as well as the changing of actors playing the same roles, as regards the passage of time. However, as the film progresses, these transitions become tiresome to the point of ridiculousness. There’s only so many ways that characters can awkwardly “go offstage” when no longer needed.
For something as constrained as Kusina, it is surely lacking in form. It introduces a lot of ideas and subplots that are neither revisited nor resolved. It has a number of invigorating moments, particularly the scenes featuring CJ Navato and Luis Alandy, but it ultimately meanders to get its message across. Whatever that may be, as the said drawback makes it difficult to decipher what the film is actually trying to convey. Is it a new take on the typical family drama? Possible. Is it a story about a woman’s journey toward happiness? Could be. Is it a commentary about how Filipinos have always adjusted to others instead of valuing themselves? A bit of a stretch. Or is Kusina – which is arguably just a parade of delicious Filipino dishes – a two-hour ad for Santos-Agoncillo’s cookbook? Not unlikely. The sure thing is that the film should not be watched on an empty stomach.
Serving food to our family or anyone who visits our home has always been a uniquely Filipino trait – an integral part of our famed hospitality. It is therefore only fitting that a story tackling how historical events spanning decades affect a Filipino family is set in the kitchen. Ironically, for a film highlighting food, Kusina tastes bland. Though Kusina proves that Palanca Award-winning screenplays (writer and director Cenon Palomares won the distinction in 2006) don’t always translate to exemplary films, it shows that he and director David Corpuz (this film being his first feature after the Jury Prize-winning short The Ordinary Things We Do) have a unique vision and are on the right track on making their own mark.