This oddball Filipino film effectively mints its own genre: the light dark comedy. Lensing the life of a crotchety gay retiree, Rene (Eddie Garcia), living with his beloved dog, Bwakaw (Princess), in the Philippines, Jun Robles Lana’s Bwakaw is equal parts broad, sitcom-ish comedy and macabre gallows humor. If nothing else, it feels entirely, effervescently original.
Coming to terms with his homosexuality late in life, Garcia’s hunched hero is all kinds of frustrated. It’s implied that he’s never even been with a man (or a woman), grouchily refusing the boy-toy offerings of a local transvestite pimp (Joey Paras) while slowly forming a relationship with a gruff, straight, married cab driver (Rez Cortez). Indeed, the only man in Rene’s bed is a shrouded, life-size statue of Christ, which may be magical: a commingling of homoerotic desire and Catholic guilt that sums up Rene’s own fraught conception of himself. He petitions his priest, who pulls double duty as the executor of his estate, to pray for him, mediating his own ambivalent search for salvation. Drifting through his twilight years, Rene spends his days revising his last will and testament, sparring with the employees of the post office he used to work at (and, as he’s a creature of well-worn habits, still shows up to routinely clean and tidy), visiting an old girlfriend in an old-folks home, and palling around with his darling dog.
On paper, Bwakaw seems like a limp country-western song about a guy-and-his-dog movie. It’s anything but. Given Rene’s sad, unfulfilled love life, Bwakaw isn’t only his faithful companion, but an idealized object of all his pent-up romantic longing. Despite the dog’s affection, Rene’s love for the animal runs entirely one way: Bwakaw may not be able to provide Rene the love he desires from a human partner, but it can’t reject its master’s dotty affections. And unlike the girlfriends he treated unfairly and emotionally scammed through his own dishonesty regarding his sexuality, Rene doesn’t have to lie to love Bwakaw. So when the dog develops cancer, his owner is panicked in his desire to fix him up. It’s not only a confrontation with his own mortality, but with the sad reality of a lived half-lived.
The emotions running through the film are surprisingly and refreshingly rich, especially given the thicker attempts at comedy Lana indulges. As seriously as Bwakaw takes the issue of Rene’s own sexuality, it elsewhere treats the gay members of his small town as flamboyant and clownish. Perhaps their ability to be so flamboyant and clownish reveals the larger culture of acceptance in this backwater berg, a generous reading betrayed by the community’s skepticism of Cortez’s tough-looking cabbie. At one point, while turning down another svelte, apparently mute boy prostitute, Rene comments that he’s “not that kind of a gay man.” While the film is fairly diligent in probing the character’s lonely, delimited conception of his own sexuality, it also weirdly seems to place pride in his shuffling existence as a hard-nosed celibate, the weight of his exasperated desire his cross to bear.
If the sexual politics run a bit watery at times, it seems less a matter of bad faith than over-eagerness. With Bwakaw, it’s pretty clear Lana wants to make a film about big things, while also keeping everything brisk, bright, and pleasantly quaint. Thanks in large part to the sincerity of the emotions electrifying the film, and Garcia’s remarkable turn as Rene, he mostly succeeds.