Joseph Israel Laban's Cuchera, a rightfully shocking exposé of the lives of low-rent drug mules, one of the drug mules, opens with the obligatory and totally unnecessary factoid on how there are so many Filipino drug mules who are still rotting in jail in various countries. From the seemingly lofty implications of his advocacy-heavy introduction, Laban jumps into the middle of one of Manila's slums. His camera is attentive to the most damning of details, like a torn and discolored Philippine flag, the grime, the mud, the heaps and heaps of garbage and the shanties that dot the dump's perimeter. From the film's first few images, it becomes clear that Laban is not interested in subtlety, and probably rightly so. The intentions of the film seem better communicated through shock and noise than lyricism and nuance.
Laban continues by following Rosa (Isadora), a matronly woman we later find out is in charge of making the falsified passports for the drug mules, and Isabel (Maria Isabel Lopez), a retired prostitute who now masterminds the recruitment of drug mules, as they spend the day preparing for the night's operation. He fortifies the story's progression with various details like Rosa and Isabel's detour to a shady faith healer, or the comedic infidelity of Isabel's husband (Simon Ibarra), or the crazed sexual appetite of Isabel's nephew (CJ Ramos). From there, Laban introduces the drug mules one by one, giving enough background to rationalize their decision to become literal victims of the very real horrors of international drug trade.
Cuchera is best seen as a horror film without the entertainment goals of the popular genre. While Laban sympathizes with the drug mules who find themselves transformed into receptacles for bags of cocaine, he does not shy away from depicting the violence, depravity, and atrocities of the carefully mapped out process. Through the succeeding sequences of rape, drug use, and of the drugs being hastily and carelessly inserted into the victims, Laban fervently manufactures offense, disgust, and revulsion from the images and sounds he creates, emphasizing very well the indisputable perversity of the market for drug mules and the pervading poverty that forces men and women to become drug mules.
Near the end of the film, one of the drug mules, while aboard a pick-up van en route to the airport, suddenly tells the story of a white lady that is rumored to haunt a hospital. One by one, the drug mules recite their known version of the ghost story. The drug mules' versions of the story are alarming, all involving rape and abortion as reasons for the lady's death and her horrid afterlife. However, the dazed storytellers recount the stories without emotions, strangely without even a tinge of fear the stories normally deserve. It is as if their collective recent experiences have desensitized them to fictional horror, rendering them unfettered and unfeeling. It is as if humanity was but a distant memory. To Laban's credit, watching his powerful debut film produced the same results within me, even if just momentarily.
(Cross-published in Lessons from the School of Inattention.)