Monday, August 1, 2011

CUCHERA (Joseph Israel Laban, 2011)

For good or bad, social problems are cinematic: they contain, almost without fail, built-in narratives, inherent drama and characters, to propel entire films. We as a filmmaking nation know this better than anybody else. For a good part of the last 40 years, the material has been grist for our cinematic mill. Since Lino Brocka and company made it our bread and butter in the 1970s, an entire cinema continues to be built on it.

At this year’s Cinemalaya, the social problem was back with a vengeance: the image of the smoldering garbage dump became the unofficial motif of the festival and the participating films. Several films look unflinchingly at it: in Adolf Alix's Isda, it’s the dehumanizing backdrop to a magical realist story. Even a film of a different focus like Ang Babae sa Septic Tank lingers over the garbage dump with satirical obsession.

Another film truly rife with a social ill is Joseph Isarel Laban’s Cuchera, a work shedding light on the dark phenomenon of drug mules. The premise promises a winner, but this film drops it. One can’t help second-guessing, and everything fingers a filmmaker that is not yet equal to his tricky material. 
If there’s one point of judicious filmmaking here, director Laban latches on to a plotline pregnant with possibilities, the story of a middle-aged prostitute who must make quick money to pay for a much-needed medical treatment. Her quick-buck but high-risk scheme is to lead a team of drug couriers into China. The frightful centerpiece of the film is how the drug mules are prepped for the job.  
Even in the short telling, it sounds like a compelling story. The wrongly calculated gung-ho approach, however, is ill-advised. The final product smacks of crudity. The glaring flaw is not so much its transgressive imagery. Rather, it’s the lack of vision to handle and elevate the often graphic and scatological content. Perhaps it is a contradiction in terms to demand that the transgressive be couched in artistry and be elevated from rawness. But there seems a flagrant intent to shock and scandalize here with little of its own perspective and thought going into it.
The failure of imagination goes beyond the faulty treatment of the tricky material; it manifests itself in the thoughtless appropriation of other films. Cuchera slavishly borrows the look and feel of such films as Halaw and Kinatay and it’s hard to escape the blatancy of this dishonest practice. These films are invoked with little innovation here. It’s hard to tell if Laban is lazy and impaired by a dearth of his own ideas, or this early making cinematic salutes.

The unsettling sensation of butchery in Kinatay is recreated here to the same unsettling effect; you know it when you see it. But Cuchera’s more wholesale pilferage is from Halaw. In Laban’s film, the narrative structure of Halaw looks intact and embalmed: the illegal crossing into Malaysia is mirrored by the illegal journey into China. Instead of illegal migrants, the contraband here are drugs. Then there are the mindless reconstructions of points of character and plot that clearly come from Halaw. There is the deflowering of the virgin. The mutinous elements of the expedition. The abortive fate of this journey. For good measure, the presence of Maria Isabel Lopez in both films, both as a prostitute, ensures Cuchera's channeling of last year’s film.
In other spheres of arts, this would have had an odious name. The borrowing goes past seven consecutive notes, as it were. There are ways to turn the image of excrement into gold. There are ways of finessing material than ramming it up our orifice. Laban's film never quite attains it. For now, Cuchera has all the appeal of a train wreck. Fortunately, this film is the exception in an otherwise worthwhile harvest at this year’s Cinemalaya.


  1. Hi Noli. Napadaan lang! Ganda ng bagong blog. :)

  2. Thanks Richard! Bisita ka ulit! :)

  3. The film has potential, but the ending feels lacking for me. It feels rushed, sudden. Just when the movie is gaining momentum, the end credits start rolling.

  4. That's because the movie has no mind of its own -- it borrows all including the truncated ending.