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

Kubrador: Life is a gamble

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By Butch Francisco

We already have a best picture for 2006. And the winner is—drum roll—Kubrador.

Now, if something superior comes along later in the year, then all the better for the local film industry.* But Kubrador, directed by Jeffrey Jeturian, is a tough act to beat.

Early in the film, its impressive qualities are already apparent, without calling attention to itself. Kubrador’s opening sequence uses what is called in local movie parlance as “tuhog,” meaning the camera records the action in one long, uninterrupted take. Action flows continuously and the director doesn’t shout, “Cut!” (Incidentally, “Tuhog” happens to be the title of Jeturian’s best film before Kubrador.)

The entire sequence is a marvel considering that it is difficult for a camera to negotiate the labyrinthine alleyways in one of the city’s thickly-populated slums. A directorial feat for its complexity and keen observations, with the orchestration of the movements of the extras and crowds that have no acting experience, right before the camera that seems to wade in the neighborhood.

In this sequence—or shot—moviegoers are introduced to the setting and the events that will propel the film to its stunning conclusion.

Written by Ralston Jover, Kubrador follows the day-to-day life of a jueteng bet collector (“kubrador”) played by Gina Pareño. The plot has no major conflict. In fact, there isn’t much plot. We have enough conflicts in our everyday existence they do not seem to move the people anymore. But each day is a struggle; only it has jaded us. Here, we do see how the characters are affected by these little and big conflicts.

The title character prays before the altar to be safe from the cops. When the cops get them, she joins them to the precinct with resignation, and there, even strikes a jueteng deal with another police officer. Without trying hard and with just natural instincts, she is a salesperson and a walking peddler of dreams. She arouses the gambler in most everyone but fails to understand or articulate that she is life’s living proof of common folk’s dependence on chance.

The kubrador’s boss, played by Johnny Manahan, is a jueteng operator who hands over to local officials grease money in brown envelopes. It is all routine accepted by everyone and broken only by occasional “visits” by raiding police. A grieving old man at a funeral wake? Moments like this only put excitement to the otherwise drab lives of the characters.

But even without action, so much is happening to the kubrador and the people she comes in contact with, and it is mostly internal. If Kubrador is the most cinematic of local films in recent years, it is because it tells its “story” not through plot and a succession of dramatic or action-packed incidents. The camera quietly but eloquently shows the locale and the people inhabiting it. The actors especially Pareño do not try to emote. They just think their parts. Without emoting and playing to the gallery, we empathize with them. Every moment is engrossing.

But then, the one big moment is reserved for the last. This is the shooting incident outside a crowded cemetery on All Saints’ Day. (Didn’t that really happen at least once at a popular memorial park?) The filmmakers seem to be making a comment about our quotidian experiences that are a matter of life and death without our knowing it, and yet when death knocks, we are caught offguard.

It is admirable that a producer (lawyer Joji Alonso) would gamble on a film like Kubrador which has no commercial value and is merely banking on its cinematic merits. Those who keep saying Filipino directors make only lousy pictures better watch this film. Or shut up.

The artistic success of the film may be attributed to a large extent to its leading player Gina Pareño whose performance may be described primarily as natural. It is also complex, affecting, poignant. Ms. Pareño has always been an exceptionally good actress, from her old Sampaguita days in the ‘60s, to the ‘70s with the emerging movie producing giant Regal Films and with the late director Jun Raquiza (“Krimen”), and her “comeback” in the ‘90s to the present. Kubrador is her crowning glory.

* The original review was published in The Philippine Star on August 10, 2006