Filipino writer-director Jun Robles Lana’s Bwakaw is a raw, unassuming, and bittersweet character study of Rene, a grouchy gay man trying to deal with the everyday realities of aging in a small village in the Philippines. Shot with a delicate subtlety and simplicity that brings to mind the naturalistic films of the Dardenne brothers, Bwakaw acknowledges the human spirit’s uncanny power to heal even the most traumatizing wounds.
On the surface, the film’s story is about the connection between a lonely gay retiree suffering from an end-of-life crisis and a stray dog that he bonds with. In many ways, Rene is a welcome rebuke to mainstream depictions of gays, showing no visible interest in casual sex or glamour. Angry, bitter, even mildly dangerous, he constantly gets into heated arguments and fist fights with everyone, from his close friends to his loving neighbors. His unhealthy obsession with death even forces him to lead a life where most of his private possessions are dusting in boxes at all corners of his run-down house, with a coffin sitting in the middle of his living room as he impatiently waits for the day of his demise.
This bold work of art dares to portray gays as complex human beings who aren’t defined entirely by their sexualities. Not only does Lana avoid the clichés of mainstream LGBT cinema, he allows us to sympathize with a character whose misanthropic actions happen to turn us off, a complex characterization enriched by veteran actor Eddie Garcia’s excellent performance. While Rene starts off as a totally unlikeable character, through his dedication to the adorable stray, Bwakaw, and his surprising friendship with a hyper-masculine cab driver, the man learns to live with other people—without literally hitting them in the face with a blow dryer that is.
The film is also a vivid and candid depiction of a tropical small village that functions as a microcosm of contemporary Filipino society. While the village’s lack of vital resources (such as cars and electricity) suggests a backward and conservative society, Lana deliberately uses the story’s revolving door of secondary characters as a motif to portray how accepting and enlightened this community is (particularly about gay rights), despite the savage economic inequalities these people have to endure on a daily basis. And despite the startling cultural specificity, the film’s depiction of loneliness, compassion, and the fragility of human life feels universal. Rene’s story wraps up in the end, when he finally sees that life, despite all its horribleness, is still worth living, but Bwakaw leaves the audience with many all too real and highly identifiable moments of human suffering that are bound to haunt us until our own reckoning.
The 50th New York Film festival runs from September 28 to October 14. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.