Kubrador (Jeffrey Jeturian, 2006)
English Title: The Bet Collector
A local film reviewer, after watching Jeffrey Jeturian's latest film Kubrador (The Bet Collector), declared the director as the next Lino Brocka. Brocka, one of the most famous directors who emerged from the Philippines' second golden age of cinema, is internationally known for portraying the lower class citizens of Manila: the slumdwellers of Insiang (1976), the male prostitutes of Macho Dancer (1988), and the urban outcasts of Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon, 1975). However, limiting Brocka to such genre is a grave offense to the artist who also dabbled in melodrama, comedy, and period pieces. Jeturian's works are similar to the genre Brocka is most known for, his Tuhog (Larger Than Life, 2001) and Pila Balde (Fetch a Pail of Water, 1999) are scathing examinations of the cruelties of poverty. Like Brocka, Jeturian also made two comedies, Bridal Shower (2004), and the delightful mockumentary Bikini Open (2005). He also made Minsan Pa (One Moment More, 2004) a Visayan love story that is pregnant with potential emotionality that I immediately declared it as one of the finest films the year it was released when I walked out of the theater in solemn awe. Jeturian may not yet be Brocka, but he is on his way there.
Jeturian's Kubrador is a result of his collaboration with lawyer Joji Alonzo (who also produced Minsan Pa). I'd like to think that their collaboration is a sort of revision for Jeturian as he has grown in subtlety and artistry when his works are financed by the film-loving esquire. It features Gina Pareno as Amy, a bet collector, and is set in a squatters' area in Manila. The time frame of the film is a few days before All Souls' Day, where most Filipinos would take the day off to visit the graves of their departed loved ones. Amy, however continues to collect bets for the game of jueteng, a numbers game, dodging policemen, and urging the poor dwellers of the squatters' colony to hand over the few pesos they have in the hopes of winning.
Jueteng is a game that has transcended the few pesos wagered in its name because it is always linked to Philippine politics. The game after all, caused the overthrowing of then President Joseph Estrada when he was accused of collecting money sourced from the numbers game. Up to now, jueteng hounds the current president whose husband is rumored to be linked to the illegal gambling game. Kubrador can easily be misread as having political motivations, but it is clear that outside the opening information given regarding the game and a few linkages to bribery of local congressmen which is already of common knowledge, the film is clearly humanist. One just has to observe and absorb the detailed portrayals of Amy's daily routines to sense the virtues that still exist within the pervading stench of poverty of the slums of Manila.
Jeturian's film is considerably slow-paced and the plot is quite sparse. Aside from the introductory sequence where the cops chase down a jueteng operator atop the roofs of the slums area, the film patiently follows Amy as she goes about her routine. Through the routine, we are introduced to the few slumdwellers, and the other personalities who populate the clockwork operations of the numbers game. Jeturian clearly doesn't want to label these people with conventional notions of morality. His interest is first and foremost the human condition. The policemen aren't jerks and they also subscribe to betting in the illegal game while Amy is in their custody. The higher up of the game, a busy man kept inside an office where piles and piles of money are literally shoveled to be deposited to the bank the next day, is unusually friendly and even exchanges in erstwhile jokes with the underdressed Amy and her companion for that day. There's a point of humor that runs throughout the film - Amy, who deals with numbers and needs to memorize number combinations for her clients, has a mnemonic technique that has her linking numbers with everyday situations and observations: grief and death, a frog and a cowardly kid, and a toddler and testicles. Jeturian has clearly mastered depicting real humans in his film with Kubrador, and this meditative observation of these humans is more watchable than tired contrivances that dominate Philippine mainstream cinema.
Yet one can critique Kubrador as pointless, without a political or a social bite. However, such would denote a lack of perspective on the critic. Kubrador is not merely a "slice of life" film. It does not sit idly as a film that is satisfied in documenting a bet collector's life in its truest sense. The film is after all a narrative, and in a way, Jeturian cooks up a fantastic angle wherein Amy's dead soldier son occasionally visits her as a ghost. The device may be perceptively be seen as old and tired but I disagree. The ghost merely shows Amy's life as a life that is constantly in the claws of death. She literally walks with death beside her. Whenever she collects bets, the police might just suddenly rush in and arrest her. Whenever she attends a grand draw, a dangerous raid might ensue. Her abode cannot be accurately described as a safe haven: kids run around, criminal elements abound, and the alleyways twist and turn like an impossible labyrinth. The film ends in a powerful note where we find Amy visiting her son's grave. She witnesses two men arguing over a vehicular accident. The man grabs his gun and shoots at the other driver but misses. The bullet scrapes a little bit of Amy's shoulder (a mere hand away from her heart) but kills a man behind her. Jeturian ends the film with Amy's realization that she is living life dangerously and that she is traversing a dangerous road where her life can be taken away almost immediately. Logic dictates that that might not be the first time Amy has realized that, but Jeturian directs the scene with power that has cumulated from the contemplative scenes that came before, that the audience might take the final scene as an impetus for change, or a mere eventuality of life that Amy will shrug off and merely continue her pathetic existence as the bottom dweller, a mere bet collector who earns a mere 52 pesos ($1) per day. I suspect Amy will opt for the latter, as Kubrador is not a film of sudden miracles and instantaneous changes, but of grim realism.