For decades, the Philippine Islands have stood in for war-torn Southeast Asia in American-produced movies (most famously and spectacularly in Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now"), as well as real and fictional Latin American and African dictatorships, contested World War II strategic real estate, and nearly anywhere else an American-financed film script has called for palm trees, rice paddies, or cane fields.
In addition to playing host to foreign productions, the Philippine film industry has regularly released homegrown productions into theaters alongside dubbed American films such as "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry" that ring up the lion's share of local ticket sales in Manila. But with few exceptions, American audiences rarely get to see them.
Beginning tomorrow, the Museum of Modern Art, in association with the Global Film Initiative, a Bay Area group that supports feature film projects that would otherwise go unmade or unreleased in the American-dominated world film exhibition market, will kick off GFI's annual touring "Global Lens" film survey with a week-long engagement of "Kubrador" ("The Bet Collector"). The 2006 film was written and directed by the Philippine filmmaker Jeffrey Jeturian and shot on the streets of Manila.
"Kubrador" is a handheld, digital video slice-of-life bearing a formal resemblance to Nicolas Winding Refn's 1996 gritty festival favorite "The Pusher," and any number of other low-budget, smash-and-grab dramas mixing actors and non-actors in real locations. A naturalistic cobbling of incident and detail, "Kubrador" portrays three days in the life of Amy (Gina Pareño), one of the thousands of anonymous touts working on behalf of Jueteng, an outlawed yet thriving underground lottery whose enormous invisible economy and profit potential attract and enslave criminals, bettors, police, and politicians alike. When not energetically hustling bets, accosting her regulars, suggesting numbers, and wheedling bigger antes per bet, Amy collects donations to offset funeral expenses from the endless parade of tragic deaths that Manila street life ensures. Her existence is almost entirely defined, as a bemused friend observes, by "Jueteng and dead people."
Mr. Jeturian's alternately oblique and intrusive camera is itself quite the hustler. But his jostle-cam immediacy is lent unusual gravity by Ms. Pareño, whose presence in this fascinating, funny, and at times heart-wrenching film makes "Kubrador" something of a torch bearer for the last four decades of Philippine cinema. For nearly half a century, Ms. Pareño has been a mainstay on her country's screens. Now in her 50s, the former bombshell (one of a string of actresses who portrayed native superheroine Darna onscreen in the '60s and '70s) has grown matronly, and her increased girth plays counterpoint to the unflagging intensity with which Amy alternately delivers sales spiels, crass observations, or motherly compassion from behind a ubiquitous dangling cigarette. Her remarkable performance elevates "Kubrador" to a film-going experience that is paradoxically fun and affirming, despite the inevitable onscreen downward spiral guaranteed by a life of offering little more than "grief and death," as Amy philosophizes between puffs.
While this fifth annual edition of Global Lens features eight films made by emerging filmmakers from as far afield as Croatia, Lebanon, and Argentina, MoMA will bring down the curtain on its survey with another week-long engagement of a film from the Pacific Rim. In place of the vérité economy of expression behind "Kubrador," Indonesian director Garin Nugroho's 2006 film "Opera Jawa" (running from January 16–21) offers an explosion of symbolism, surrealism, and spectacle that must be seen to be believed. The film's source material, an ancient Hindu fable called "The Abduction of Sinta," has been interpreted in Javanese dance and puppet theater for centuries. "Opera Jawa," which was commissioned by Peter Sellars in 2005 as part of his New Crowned Hope Festival commemoration of Mozart's 250th birthday, sees Mr. Nugroho give an indigenous folktale the Matthew Barney treatment.
A love triangle involving Sinta (Artika Sari Devi), her potter husband, Setio (Martinus Miroto), and local butcher hoodlum Ludiro (dancer Eko Supriyanto, who can list work with Julie Taymor and Madonna among his credits) forms the basis for a series of muscular and confrontational seductions and confessions, all sung and danced against real landscapes and interiors dressed and shot with an ingenious eye for the theatrically bizarre. "Nini Thowak, the magic puppet, gives a massage," sings a witness-bearing choir at one point. Whether or not "massage" is a subtitle typo is impossible to sort out as fingers caress, toes curl, and the film's deadly earnest and none too coherent storyline vanishes behind decorative tableaux of exponentially increasing non-specific and nevertheless evocative nuttiness.
"A bird, like a bird, not a bird," the ladies of the chorus opaquely recite. They could very well be singing about "Opera Jawa," a movie musical that's like a stage musical, and yet not really quite like anything else, and a film whose unique regional creative voice would remain silent were it not for production grants and distribution efforts undertaken by the Global Film Initiative.
MoMA's Global Lens program continues through January 24 (11 W. 53rd St., between Fifth and Sixth avenues, 212-708-9400).
Determined, loving, religious Amelita (a tour-de-force performance by Gina Pareno) spends her early mornings praying to the Virgin Mary and her afternoons collecting bets as a jueteng kubrador in her poverty-stricken urban Manila neighborhood in The Bet Collector (Kubrador).
The illegal betting game has captivated the country in recent years, reaching as far up as former Philippine President Joseph Estrado, who was accused with receiving illegal gambling profit in 2000.
Still, nowhere has the jueteng fever spread as fast or as fervently as it has in poor neighborhoods; according to the film, millions in the Philippines rely on the game as a means of income in an increasingly desperate environment.
Amelita is no exception. Sweet-talking her neighbors, showing them seeming benefit and opportunity within each of the challenges they confide to her, she believes wholeheartedly in religion and numerology -- that, and evading the police, pretending she's just collecting alms when they inspect her handbag for signs of scribbled bet numbers.
The betting itself consists of two numbers in a manual lottery pull usually performed by small numbers placed in a bottle, shaken and chosen randomly. For Amelita, the numbers represent each neighbor's challenge or concern and each has specific meaning she explains as she helps neighbors make their choices.
A Mother's Love
It's this willingness to turn adversity into asset that keeps Amelita afloat; with a husband whose primary job appears to be watching game shows; a freeloading, perennially pregnant daughter; and itinerant son-in-law, Amelita knows whatever the family needs she must provide. The character is reminiscent of Penelope Cruz' Raimundo in Almodovar's Volver: nothing is too much to ask a mother when it comes to taking care of those she loves.
Regardless of her own failing health and increased sense of "being bewitched" by the ghost of her deceased soldier son, she wanders amid the squalor and equally intense camaraderie found in the streets of her urban community, certain every event is a sign pointing to a pair of winning numbers.
Not even the death of a promising young neighbor student is without numerical divine intervention; though saddened while comforting the boy's grandfather, Amelita is no less inspired to jot down the betting numbers "13-29" for a future number pull, representing "grief to death."
Though police haul in various kubradors and jueteng participants, including Amelita, after booking said criminals they're not above placing bets themselves. Such is the nature of their daily lives: while illegal, there's something so enticing about the prospect of easy money in a world filled with relatively little worth dreaming about that even those charged with upholding the law cannot keep themselves away from the game.
Filming The Bet Collector
Director Jeffrey Jeturian (Bikini Open and Bridal Shower) is content to leisurely let his camera follow wherever Amelita goes, creating a natural, day-by-day character study of one woman's life during the week leading up to All Saints Day. Not plot-driven nor particularly detailed, the film is nevertheless filled with inspired moments deeper than they appear on the surface. The end result is a captivating composite of the beauty and meaning found within even the most materially impoverished lives and how human beings, regardless of social stature and living conditions, are connected by shared dreams and family ties.
The Bet Collector runs 98 minutes and also features Fonz Deza, Nanding Josef, Johnny Manahan, Jhong Del Rosario and Nico Antonio. An encore presentation of the film will be held on Sunday March 18 at 9:45 p.m.