Cuchera (Joseph Israel Laban, 2011) July 28, 2011Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
Written and directed by Joseph Israel Laban
Cast: Maria Isabel Lopez, Simon Ibarra, CJ Ramos, Jon Neri, Sue Prado
The people behind Cuchera have always been vocal about the nature of their material. Like Pepe Diokno’s Engkwentro, the film lays down statistics and starts the grind from there. It owes its life from the news, from stories of Filipino drug couriers abroad, about people who are trapped in a labyrinth in which trouble lurks at every exit. By saying that Cuchera is based on a true story, its makers suppose that clinging to that selling point provides the film a certain importance, giving it automatic weight and substance, a powerful defense from reproach that may have convinced filmmaker Francis Pasion in calling it “the darkest, most depressing, gut-wrenching film in the history of Cinemalaya,” or festival programmer Ed Cabagnot in saying that “it’s the bravest Cinemalaya film this year” and adding “nay, ever.” Veering away from the shower of empty praises, critic Oggs Cruz shares an insight, which, even though I find the reasoning faulty, gives Cuchera the credit it deserves. Cruz says, “Cuchera is rightfully shocking. It’s [better] seen as a horror film than a drama.” I agree, but it is more important to point out that the key word here is neither “shocking” nor “horror,” but “rightfully.”
Hovering over the movie is a nagging sense of legitimacy, which is a little conceited in suggesting that any appalling piece of news translates well into film, that whatever detail misinterpreted in between is unintentional, and being informed and sharing it with other people expresses concern, deliberately mistaking expression for actual help. Cuchera is heavy on depiction. In fact, there’s very little in it that we haven’t heard from the news or read in the newspapers. Director Joseph Laban makes good use of that advantage and fills his movie with details that shock as much as they numb, fixated on building an atmosphere of fear and claustrophobia. He succeeds in provoking emotional responses, but what he fails to consider is the skill to sustain them, to allow us not only to hold onto his characters but also to grip them, even embrace them, and not just feel sorry for them. Laban feeds on unsophistication, borrowing distinctive elements from Brillante Mendoza’s Kinatay (strobe lights, long van ride, ominous music) and misconstruing them, heedless of context. There’s no argument about its realism, but how far will the prose go without something new to say?
One of the key concepts related to hyperreality is “reality by proxy,” and Cuchera simulates a piece of reality, reproducing it in such a way that the dynamics are dressed in guilt—cloaked in the thick armory of pertinence—that having a socio-political theme becomes an excuse for reason. At some point these questions need to be raised: Why make a copy of reality in cinema where fantasies of self-nourishment abound? How do you contend against a film whose urgency looks daggers at criticism? And most importantly, who do you think the Cinemalaya people are fooling when they tease the audience with the strapline, “See the Unseen”? What here have we not seen before? Notwithstanding a couple of disturbing scenes—disturbing because they are staged in bad taste—the rest of the movie is downright predictable except for one. The character of Maria Isabel Lopez checks herself in the bathroom mirror, probing her breast for a lump. The worry in her eyes speaks volumes, evoking Catalina Sandino Moreno from Maria Full of Grace, and her fingers reach out to something that the entire movie takes pains in discovering. It’s the only time Cuchera dips its toes in the water, and unfortunately it’s too quick to withdraw.
*Cross-published on Pelikula Tumblr