Kusina has a theatrical style that would have served it better on a live stage, but a stellar performance by Judy Ann Santos, smart script, deft execution, and creative use of its play-like elements result into an affecting autobiography.

“Kusina” (The Kitchen) is the silent witness to the life and love of Juanita. It is her sanctuary, the place where she creates dishes for her family, her friends, even enemies and strangers. Through cooking, she gets to know the people around her, and in return, reveal herself to them. – Cinemalaya

Once upon a time when talent still weighed more than star appeal, Judy Ann Santos came into the scene with none of the conventional prized mestiza look but with twice more skill in dramatic acting than many of the stars in her generation. She returns with Kusina and proves that she still has it.

In a role that could have easily devolved into stereotypical soap opera melodrama, Santos delivers a stellar naturalistic performance that results into 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 although there are weaker players who can’t match Juday.

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 to 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 her son introduces his girlfriend but is left unheard as Juanita is pre-occupied with listening to the radio for any news that would involve her rebellious daughter, a summary of their relationship in one scene. The old time radio becomes a new addition to the kitchen to indicate the changing times. The only location of the movie gradually evolves and 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 with the emotional momentum of the story. This also meant that the narrative doesn’t have much leeway 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. [betraying the precise layered execution it has maintained throughout]

Still, Kusina delivers a different movie-going experience by treating its audiences as smart viewers who can appreciate its artistic spins and recognize that life doesn’t come with easy resolutions. It’s what Cinemalaya is about after all. 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.

My Rating: 7.5/10

[redacted after second viewing]