Man, dog, and closet
An aging, long-in-the-closet gay man, a no-go love affair, and a dying dog make this touching film with veteran star Eddie Garcia whom director Lana has described as “the Clint Eastwood of the Philippines.” Let’s imagine for a minute Clint actually playing this role. It ain’t happening. Let’s also look at Mike D’Angelo’s Toronto tweet review (I do not hide my admiration for D’Angelo’s terse Twitter coverage). He gives it a 56, a creditable but not great score in his system, and says, “Bit of pathos overload—lonely aging gay protag coping with unrequited love and a dying dog. Honest & direct, which helps.” What’s admirable about Bwakaw is its peaceful, rambling accumulation of narrative details that also gradually build up a sense of slowly earned caring for Rene (Garcia) — the character based on a real person the writer-director knew. And because Rene is a chilly, grumpy, downright hostile type, sentimentality is safely tamped down, despite the inevitable “pathos overload” of the story content.
In a post-screening discussion there was mention of Umberto D. I was reminded a little of the Roman screenwriter Gianni Di Gregorio’s 2008 directorial debut Mid-August Lunch, which though distinctly different, seems a more interesting comparison. Di Gregorio’s world is glossy, Mediterranean, and very Italian. His alter ego, Gianni, is not gay, and his mother is not dead. But he lives with her as Rene did with his. He like Rene he is essentially alone and has nothing to do. Rene’s world is more primitive and Third World. But perhaps because of that, life pushes its way in a bit more, particularly in the person of Sol (Rez Cortez), the rough, gangsterish tricycle cab driver whom Rene at first hates, then bonds with, then hopelessly loves.
Rene by his own “honest & direct” declaration to his priest (whom he “confesses” to only to revise his will) has been a lifelong “coward.” He strung along Alicia (Armida Siguion Reyna) for fifteen years pretending to love her as she loved him. Now he visits her at a retirement home, where she can’t remember him, till in a moment of clarity she does and he can ask her forgiveness. It took him well into old age to own up to his homosexuality. And when he tries to kiss a sleeping Sol after they’ve gotten drunk together, it’s to “see what it feels like.” He’s never even kissed a man. But the “pathos” of this avoids “overload” (at least fitfully, throughout) through humor, some of it macabre, like the coffin Rene has bought in a “summer sale’ and must take possession of when the funeral home goes out of business. He tries it out at home and finds it more comfortable than he’d expected. Later to avoid a friend’s (comically) twisted face in death he practices a fixed smile while laid out in faux-death. A folk religious note comes through a Jesus figurine his mother slept beside all her life, which is reputed to have healing powers. His hairdresser friends Zaldy (Soxie Topacio) and Tracy (Joey Paras) add a trashily camp gay note. Due presumably to his sudden interest in Sol, Rene yields to their dubious suggestion and gets a dye job that makes him look like an even prunier-faced Ronald Reagan.
The dog, Bwakaw, is a stray in the neighborhood Rene fed and semi-adopted, but never showed affection for. And like Uggie, the dog in Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist, Princess, the accomplished trained acting canine in this movie, becomes the co-protagonist. When she becomes ill she turns into Rene’s main preoccupation, the Muguffin if you will that teaches him to feel and by releasing sadness enables him to embrace life again. He unwraps all the objects in the house he’d packed away after his mother’s death and labeled for his handful of chosen “heirs,” the gay hairdressers and coworkers at the post office, where he’s been showing up every day to do chores even though he’s retired, just to have something to do. The house looks radiant and Rene walks off into a lush winding forest road, shot from above.
Bwakaw is a little long and definitely episodic and its protagonist is slow to grow on you, but ultimately this is a movie that can appeal even to the hard-hearted, except that it sometimes doesn’t, due to the off-putting title and the bleak plotline. In addition, thanks perhaps to the hurried shoot imposed by a low budget, there are some wrong notes. After the still quite young Bwawkaw has gotten sick and been diagnosed with cancer, she still seems awfully perky at times. (In truth simulating cancer may be too great a challenge for even the most talented canine.) When Minda (Luz Valdez), the post office friend, becomes ill, Rene steps out of his dour character a bit too much in giving her a pre-op party. Surely Rene’s frequent visits to the handsome young priest Father Eddie (Gardo Versoza) reflect an attraction, but that’s an aspect that’s fudged on screen. The alterations in Rene’s mood are a bit on the crude and abrupt side, the film’s fault, not Eddie Garcia’s. And despite the sociability of Filipino culture we don’t feel a social context here as we do in the Italian films I’ve mentioned. But Bwakaw is a respectable and original effort. Rene is a genuinely memorable character, both unique and expressive of something basic in the human condition, that we are all alone and all must die.
Bwakaw debuted at the Cinemalaya Philippine Independent film festival in July 2012 and was also shown at Toronto in September; and at the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center a month later. Screened for this review as part of the NYFF. It has been chosen to be the official entry of the Philippines to the Best Foreign Language Film competition at the 85th Academy Awards 2013. In a Skype Q&A director Lana reported the local release was brief but lucrative enough to break even on expenses. He also mentioned that Eddie Garcia very willingly took on the role, and that Princess has her own TV series and besides that is trained as a bomb-sniffing dog.
Director: Jun Lana
Stars: Eddie Garcia, Princess, Rez Corte
Runtime: 110 min