Bwakaw: Toronto Review

Bwakaw Toronto Film Still - P 2012
Elements that might have been pure treacle in less capable hands are given grace and dignity in Filipino writer-director Jun Robles Lana's illuminating character study.

A six-decade veteran of film and television in the Philippines, Eddie Garcia shows both hardened and heartwarming sides in Jun Robles Lana's tender film about old age and loneliness.

TORONTO – A captivating charmer from the Philippines, Jun Robles Lana’s Bwakaw charts the gently humanizing process by which a sour gay curmudgeon opens himself up late in life to experience love and loss. Elevated by a performance to be treasured from national screen superstar Eddie Garcia, and equally winning work from a cute pooch, the film gracefully blends melodrama, broad and lower-key comedy, and honestly earned sentiment while making poignant observations about old age, emotional solitude, romantic longing and friendship.

Following its Toronto exposure with a New York Film Festival main-slate slot, this could conceivably find a home in boutique arthouse distribution, with its chances improved by discreet trimming. As hits like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel have demonstrated, the gray dollar is a mighty force, and there’s no reason that market couldn’t also be tapped by a foreign-language film from outside the usual travel-friendly territories. Bwakaw also suggests remake potential, though one fears that relocation to a familiar culture would render this lovely story more prosaic.

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Crusty Rene (Garcia) lives in a village outside Manila, where he continues to perform janitorial duties at the local post office despite being officially retired. Routine and a sense of usefulness are important to this proud man, more so than cordial relations with colleagues or neighbors. Even the soft spot he clearly holds for Bwakaw, the sandy-colored stray mutt that adopted him, is cloaked in gruff indifference.

The dog becomes a contentious issue when tricycle taxi driver Sol (Rez Cortez) attempts to charge Rene an additional passenger fare for the animal. (It’s unclear whether this was a direct influence, but the clash mirrors the hilarious Luchino Visconti episode of the 1953 Italian portmanteau film, Of Life and Love (Siamo donne), in which hot-tempered Anna Magnani, playing herself, flares up over a Roman cabbie’s insistence that her pet is not a lap dog.)

Thuggy-looking, tattooed Sol becomes a regular target for Rene’s rudeness. But when Bwakaw falls ill, requiring frequent transportation to a veterinary clinic, Rene is forced to accept help, and the two men reach a truce.

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While it’s revealed early on that Rene accepted his homosexuality at a relatively advanced age, there’s minimal sense of solidarity in his prickly friendship with Zaldy (Soxie Topacio) a flaming hairdresser also known as “Mother.” And Rene barely tolerates Zaldy’s zaftig trannie sidekick Tracy (Joey Paras), who bristles at the old man’s derision. Their insistence on sending over reluctant rent boys to soften up Rene earns them no gratitude. These scenes are played for high comedy, but Lana weaves them seamlessly into the narrative fabric.

One of the most affecting aspects of Bwakaw is the balance of comedy and melancholy as Rene ponders his mortality. Having snapped up a deluxe coffin during a summer sale, he is forced to accommodate the massive casket in his cramped home when the funeral parlor closes up shop. And he returns regularly to the church confessional, where Father Eddie (Gardo Versoza) keeps notes on who gets what in the will Rene is forever updating. Casting sensitive hunk Versoza as the patient priest seems a canny stroke from Lana to keep the audience guessing about where and how romance will surface.

Rene’s conflicted attitudes toward religion are explored with delicacy and humor, notably via the life-size Christ figure he inherited from his devout mother, which now reclines on his bed. There are also tender scenes of contrition and atonement with Alicia (Armida Siguion Reyna), a woman Rene strung along for 15 years without ever loving her. Alicia’s dementia lifts to reveal brief lapses of lucidity in some of the film’s most emotionally piercing scenes.

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As Sol puts his carpentry and electrician skills to use, making improvements on Rene’s run-down home, and the fastidious old man attempts a more youthful makeover, Bwakaw appears headed in predictable directions. But Luna is more interested in the bittersweet subtleties of cumulative self-discovery than in artificially tidy outcomes.

Shot in a sedate style that benefits from the sleepy haze of the tropical light, the film makes economic use of a nonintrusive score to maintain its pleasurably mellow rhythm. While it’s 10 or 15 minutes too long, the unhurried feel seems entirely in keeping with the focus on a character taking stock in his twilight years. Garcia embodies that process beautifully, never forcing the evidence of vulnerability and pain beneath Rene’s abrasive exterior. And with an unassuming appeal that characterizes the experience as a whole, Bwakaw (played by Princess) joins the ranks of the most heart-tugging screen dogs.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema)
Production company: Octobertrain Films
Cast: Eddia Garcia, Rez Cortez, Gardo Versoza, Armida Siguion Reyna, Alan Paule, Soxie Topacio, Joey Paras, Luz Valdez, Beverly Salviejo
Director-screenwriter: Jun Robles Lana
Producers: Ferdinand Lapuz, Antonio Tuviera, Tonee Acejo
Executive producers: Jun Robles Lana, Perci Intalan, Rams David, Michael Tuviera, Joselito Oconer
Director of photography: Carlo Mendoza
Production designer: Joey Luna
Music: Jema Pamintuan, Jeff Hernandez
Editor: Lawrence Ang
Sales: Fortissimo Films
No rating, 112 minutes