The society of respected film critics that hands out the annual Gawad Urian in cinematic excellence

Kubrador: Betting on Luck and Light and Shadow

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By Tito Genova Valiente

We have seen this figure in many films. An alpha male. But, in the film, Kubrador, the person is a woman. She is Amy, mother, Danger incarnate. Believer.

Today is no different from any other day. She begins the day with a prayer, asking for divine intercession, the votive candles approving, the saints seemingly listening. Her gaze is unflinching. The intensity is disturbing because it is all too sincere and all too frank. For Amy is praying that God, and all the saints in heaven, will save her from the enemies—the cops.

In her world, too soon, we are told that her God in the form of a Child does not listen to a gambler’s plea. Not even the Saints, whose hands she touches with quiet desperation, could interfere when the policemen stop her for questioning. Heaven it seems can always wait at the door of the authority whose position about gambling is as complicated and as mysterious as the faith of Amy. But the unseen hands of the powerful free Amy. Out she goes into the world of the free and the impoverished. This does not happen though before the top policeman with the grace of some gods pushes into the hands of our collector his own bet.

Thus begins the uncompromising incursion into the world of what we call the poor. Along the way, the story makes us laugh loud about the grace of imagination and the tragicomic meaning of numbers. A choice of the right tandem of numbers can be a day of transient wealth. Amy presides over this space ruled by luck and esoteric folk knowledge. She sees meaning in all numbers. She sees it everywhere: in young men afraid of snakes, in women who remain single. She conjures it out of the nerves of the day. She even feels it in the death of someone.

Remove jueteng from the backdrop, and Amy is a sorceress and priestess managing a ritual about life and survival. She is also your dear aunt and confidant. And yet, it is to the credit of this film, and to its director and writer and cinematographer, that much as it uses metaphors difficult to handle, it eases out of mere adventure to move seamlessly into the boundaries of realities. Where people are poor and hungry, where children are thin and angry, where priests and policemen and small-time gambling lords are almost interchangeable in their benign and consoling presence. A priest rides a jeep of almost the same form as that owned by the police. In this dance of life, the cunning bet collector is also the sweet alms collector par excellence.

No Small Roles. Three characters disappear into their roles that are so well written they almost fight the interminable memory of their stereotypes. Nanding Josef’s priest and Soliman Cruz’s police chief are real because the two actors portray them without judgment. Both are flawed souls and we recognize meeting them somewhere. Johnny Manahan’s jueteng cashier rejects the ancient tradition of goons in the local film industry as he portrays for us a man who is humble enough to announce that he is a mere treasurer. There is an almost endearing softness to this man in whose house coin bets of the many are not counted but shoveled into sacks. Then there is the Eli of Fons Deza, the husband of Amy. We never get to know him. We just feel the scars in the limp, the helplessness of being a husband who does not rule the house.

Ralston Rover, credited for the story and screenplay, and Armando Lao, the story and screenplay supervisor, should be mentioned here for employing with dexterity the visual metaphor of the Dead Man appearing in the lives of people who are so poor they actually walk like ghosts. The technique is both poetic and literal, convincing us that life can be disjointed and at the same time magical. In between, feel free to insert the spiritual.

Jeffrey Jeturian has done this imaging of poverty and slums in Pila Balde but in Kubrador, he is a cruel collector of images that hurt and touch not because they are new but because they have always been there. It is a feat for this independent (i.e. underfunded) group that everything falls in its place like sincere bets: the set design of Leo Abaya, the menace in the music of Jerrold Tarog whose rhythm seems forever to warn of impending danger. This danger, however, never comes, because it is already there.

There are many great things to write about the film. One is that if we are going to cheer and dream for the hope of our film industry, we do not look for them in big studios. We look for them in films like Kubrador, and, in an actor like Gina Pareño. She is bound to shock those who have counted her as losing bet. She is a brassy winner in this movie. Her Amy is half-dead, half-alive. She is the shaman ruling over rituals that are everyday politics. Her plain collector is so helplessly human that when she looks at the brightening sky after the tropical rains, her withered vision demands no less an apparition. We urge her prayers to come true but we know they will never come true. We insist in our heart that miracles come her way but, somewhere, in that jaded heart, we cannot grumble when no miracles take place.

She walks us through the labyrinth of the squatters. In a tour-de-force of a scene, she walks and turns the next corner and finds herself at a dead-end. It is a terrific and terrifying scene and in the wisdom and artistry of Pareño, the extended scene transforms itself into a spectacle of the storyteller lost in a trance to better convey the meaning of being there. In that maze of dregs and dirt, the camera of Roberto Yñiguez is ruthlessly pursuing the woman that is now both the prey and the hunter, not giving in, threatening to bump real walls and show real falls. When she does come out and finds her way, it is into a world, less dark perhaps but no less poorer. The shadows retreat and give way to light but we know where that light will soon go.

John Berger, the critic and the writer, says that “what is saved in cinema when it achieves art is a spontaneous continuity with mankind”. In that “popular and vagrant” medium, human beings “discover what belongs to them apart from their single lives.” At the end of the film, Pareño’s Amy stands and gropes for her shoulder and feels the bleeding wound caused by the bullet that grazed her. Behind her stands the figure of her dead son, looking more alive than anyone. She screams and comes alive in that tableau where Dead so rules the Living it commands the Dead to come back and guide the living to Life.

When Kubrador was released in 2006, Gina Pareño was not the major star appearing now in both independent cinema and the most commercial of TV dramas. She was plucked from the silver memory of Sampaguita Star 66 into the realm of thespians able to convey the scent and squalor of a universe endowed with numbers that make or unmake lives. The film Kubrador owes its provenance not to the artifice of the big studios but to the reality of local politics missing out on the power of chance in the lives of the regular citizens. The discourse of those who go for the numbers game is a discourse on how at least certain processes are within the control of the small person (I can choose my numbers and I can look forward to winning or even losing) and how the damned life under a rotten government cannot even be measured by any number.

In Kubrador, hope is tremblingly tiny but present, persistent, and powerful. In the film, bad politics and its companion structured inequality are troublingly present, persistent, powerful—and offers the tiniest of hope and social reform. The chance of winning is small, survival is a gamble—like life for many in the nation. That discourse was quite a big gamble for this film. Fortunately, it won its bet.