In a role that could have easily devolved into stereotypical soap opera melodrama, Judy Ann Santos delivers a stellar naturalistic performance that results in an engaging journey of her character. Even in an over the top scene, she saves the movie from becoming too silly. The rest of the cast also did well.
The story never leaves the kitchen which bears witness to the life of Juanita. The events unfold like a play with time jumps, implied plot points, and symbolism. Thankfully the movie embraces its limitations rather than try to dress it up, resulting in the creative use of technical filmmaking elements. Lighting, cinematography, production design, and dialogue are used to tell the story and move the plot forward.
In one scene the faces of adolescent Juanita and her grandmother glow with artificial light as they open the window, implying that the Japanese occupation has ended and a new beginning has come. In another, the frustrated married Juanita finally reaches her breaking point and ends up in a heated argument with her husband Peles, her last sentence ringing an end to a chapter in her adult life.
This is also applied to subplots. In one of its many turning points, she ignores her son as he introduces his girlfriend. Juanita is pre-occupied with listening to the radio for any news that would involve her rebellious daughter. The old-time radio becomes a new addition to the kitchen to indicate the changing times. The only location of the movie gradually evolves as the years pass by. The film commits to the fact that yes, it is built on a sound stage just like a detailed prop in a play.
This approach makes Juanita a unique entry in Cinemalaya next to Hiblang Abo, but far more clever in its conceit. However, this stage play treatment also comes with a setback when used in a feature-length film.
The abrupt time-lapses interrupt the emotional momentum of the story. This also meant that the narrative has to stay on track with the timeline, leading to a simplistic story with a revolving door of characters. The sudden changes and minute details may go over the head of some moviegoers. The purposely sparse and artificial set may confuse some more. It ends with an obvious over-sentimental lesson.
Still, Kusina delivers a different movie-going experience. It doesn’t insult the audience’s intelligence and recognize that life doesn’t have easy resolutions. It celebrates the Filipino’s fondness for home-cooked meals and the family memories that get attached to them. More importantly, it’s a heartfelt ode to mothers who have chosen to nurture others, even if that meant sacrificing their own fulfillment.
Kusina features stellar performances, a smart script, deft execution, and creative use of its play-like elements that result in a compelling autobiography.