NYFF Review: Bwakaw


[For the next month, we will be covering the 50th New York Film Festival. Keep coming back to Flixist for news, features, and reviews of some of the most anticipated films on the festival circuit in 2012. Check out all of our coverage here.]

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a Filipino film. The last one must have been Crying Ladies with Sharon Cuneta in 2003, and before that it was a Dolphy movie or two when I was just a kid. There may have been a handful of other movies I can’t remember, but Bwakaw is probably just the fifth Filipino movie I’ve ever seen tops.

Bwakaw also happens to be the official Oscar selection from The Philippines this year. Not bad for an indie movie shot in roughly 10 days.

I can see why Bwakaw would be the country’s pick. There’s a polish to the direction that emphasizes the rhythm of different moods. The performances, whether they’re intimate or broad, are assured. And there’s a certain kind of appeal to a film about a lonely old man and his dog.

Director: Jun Robles Lana
Rating: TBD
Country: The Philippines

Eddie Garcia, a veteran actor and filmmaker in Philippine cinema, plays Rene, a cantankerous old man who spends his days cleaning up the local post office and being a grouch. He only has a handful of friends, and the closest one is his dog, Bwakaw. The animal actor is named Princess, and was apparently a last-minute replacement found on YouTube. It’s surprising that Princess wasn’t their first pick given how capable and well-trained she seems. She follows Garcia around like they’ve been together for years. There’s even a familiarity to the way Garcia treats her and holds her. When I was looking for stills for Bwakaw, I noticed a number of photos of Garcia and Princess together outside of shooting and they look like owner and pet.

Rene’s gay, but he only came to terms with his sexuality late in life. Rene had tried to pass as a straight man for years, and even had a long-term relationship with a woman, but the facade only made him bitter. Now that he’s well past his prime, he’s resigned himself to death alone. His house is a reflection of this. The whole place is in disrepair to a point where all the electricity gives out. Everything Rene owns is boxed up and ready to be given away when he finally keels over. Basically the only things that aren’t packed are a bed and his mother’s statue of Jesus which his neighbor thinks has healing powers. At one point early on in Bwakaw, Rene’s forced to keep a coffin at his house because the mortuary he bought it from is going out of business. He’s surrounded by memento mouris.

Rene is resentful of everything and everyone. He hates his co-workers, who have families who take care of them. He hates his two flaming hair dresser friends for being such comfortably over-the-top queens. There’s Zaldy (Soxie Topacio), whom Rene’s known since childhood, and there’s Zaldy’s transvestite assistant Tracy (Joey Paras). He hates Catholicism for making him think he was a sinner. Rene even hates himself for not being open and honest with everyone earlier in life. But at least there’s Bwakaw, though he kind of hates his dog at times too.

Garcia is the heart and soul of the movie, and it’s his performance that makes a lot of Bwakaw watchable. Most of the time it’s as if the only enjoyment he gets in life is putting other people down and letting them know how miserable they should be. But whenever Rene softens, it’s genuine. The smiles seem warmer given how cold he was before, and any tenderness in his voice feels like the real Rene peeking through all of the misery and guilt. These are the sorts of emotional extremes you’d expect from a person resigned to dying alone. The genuine happiness burns brief but bright. Writer/director Jun Robles Lana said the character was partially inspired by his mentor, the playwright Rene O. Villanueva (who was straight). It makes me wonder if Villanueva also had a cranky streak.

Bwakaw is full of broad comedy as well softer character moments, and the former which undercuts a lot of the potential sentimentality. A lot of that broadness comes from Zaldy and Tracy, who are about as flaming as you can get. Nothing says queen more than a middle-aged man with pink hair or a round guy in a halter top. It’s hard to even consider these stereotypes offensive since they’re at once so over-the-top and so sympathetic. Both Tracy and Zaldy care for Rene, even when he does put them down and push them away. They’re the closest Rene has to family whether he realizes it or not; their love is sincere and unconditional.

A lot of Bwakaw unfolds slowly, and I think that has to do with Rene’s emotional state. Lana captures the sense of waiting, which might sound bad, but it’s not. Rene’s waiting to die, so he’s in no hurry to get anything done, and the film finds visual interest in these moments. The opening of the film is Rene getting ready to do go through his daily routine. He’s deliberate about it, and it gives the audience a chance to get introduced to the pace and state of Rene’s life. For the first half of the movie, the only time Rene shows urgency is when he’s updating his will. There’s one memorable gag that gives a sense of this listlessness, and it involves a jitney and a man in an ox cart.

Bwakaw sort of unfolds the way you’d expect a movie about an old man and his dog would unfold. There are scenes of genuine tenderness and affection, and there are moments of meditative beauty. For the most part its revelations are quiet and epiphanies are intimate. Sometimes Rene will confess something that’s been bottled up in him for a long time, but Bwakaw leaves a lot of those feelings inside, which is more effective and more real. That’s what is must feel like when you’re coming to terms with death and trying to put your own house in order.

But Rene’s life becomes more complicated as the film moves along. The film’s pace picks up just a little, and because Garcia’s performance is so solid, I found myself carried along the way. Rene has all the items of his life boxed and ready, but you wonder if he’s actually ready to go. It’s that interesting thing that guilt and regret does to people after many years. On the one hand you wish it were all over already, but then again, sometimes you wish you could live your life right and had second chances.

There’s part of me that sensed where the film was going, not because Bwakaw telegraphs itself but because there’s a certain trajectory to movies about crotchety old men. Yet there’s an easy charm to the movie thanks to Garcia’s performance, and none of the lessons Rene learns are simple or neat. Whether it’s ruminative or slapsticky, Bwakaw endears, and it thankfully doesn’t try to be too sweet when it doesn’t need to. Lana’s film is assuredly itself without pretense. It never reaches too far or tries too hard. It knows what it is and is comfortable in its own skin, and that’s what’s likable about it.

[Bwakaw will screen at Alice Tully Hall on October 7th and at the Francesca Beale Theater on October 10th and October 12th.]

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.