The society of respected film critics that hands out the annual Gawad Urian in cinematic excellence

Bwakaw: Deceptively Innocent, Truly Revolutionary

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By Nicanor G. Tiongson

With the rise of inexpensive digital video technology, indie filmmakers have finally been liberated from profit-oriented producers and now are able to make films more freely, including those with themes that were studiously avoided by the commercial mainstream cinema. One of these themes is homosexuality, which has become a fad among new wave filmmakers in the past six years, especially since Philippine urban society itself has become more tolerant or at least less condemnatory of gayness. Moreover, gays have now found their own niches in arts, academe, and media and their own voice in militant organizations that fight for gay rights.

Such conditions, however, were not sufficient guarantee that filmmakers, many of them gay, would come out with “gay lib” films that would be free of patriarchal values. Zombadings characterized gayness as a curse, while Daybreak, for failing to deepen its characters and conflict, implied that gay relationships are simply and inevitably doomed to fail. In fact, it can be said that most of the gay indie films that have come out since 2005 have tended to emphasize the loneliness, suffering, and tragedy often associated or equated with being gay in mainstream movies, which only goes to show that even gay filmmakers who espouse liberation are unwitting and unconscious subjects of macho prejudices. Luckily, however, a few indie films have been able to destroy or counter the many stereotypes of gays in the mainstream, replacing these with more truthful images that show the many faces and ways of being gay and the twists and turns, joys and sufferings of having a gay relationship. Among these very few are Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros, and now, Bwakaw.

Bwakaw, written and directed by the versatile and prolific Jun Lana, is about a 70-year old closeted gay man Rene (played by the supremely talented actor Eddie Garcia), who lives in a large but decrepit house, where he sleeps on a bed beside the image of the dead Christ that he inherited from his dead mother. Although retired, he continues to work as a janitor in his former office, for free and for lack of anything better to do. Irritable and irascible as he is, he drives everyone away with his permanent smirk and caustic tongue. But he shows tenderness toward an old lady with dementia, who in their youth truly loved him and whom he led on but did not marry anyway. In one lucid moment the lady tells him to stop coming to the rest home -- that is, stop living in the past. Now his only and closest friend is Bwakaw, a street mutt which strayed into his life years ago. When his dog dies, he is devastated but soon develops feelings for a tricycle driver (Rez Cortes). When he attempts to gently kiss the inebriated driver on the mouth after a drinking session, the latter quickly and totally rejects him and his friendship. But Rene promptly picks himself up from depression. Upon advise of a childhood friend who is a vociferous but kind parlorista (Soxy Topacio), Rene decides to finally banish his obsession with death and live whatever remains of his life to the fullest.

Deceptively simple and seemingly “innocent,” Bwakaw is authentic gay lib because it quietly but very efficiently demolishes most of the deeply-embedded stereotypes about gays in Philippine cinema. For one, gays here are no longer just “screaming faggots” with not a shred of brain or shame that Dolphy popularized in rib-ticklers like Jack and Jill and Fefita Fofonggay and Roderick Paulate in comedies like Kumander Gringa and Paruparong Buking. Rather the lead character is a regular, almost boring, human being, who, like everybody else, is a mixed bag of ironies and contradictions -- sometimes cantankerous and vicious, sometimes caring and gentle, naturally straight-looking but gay to the core, with a will of steel and a heart of putty.

Contradicting the idea that being gay naturally goes with being unhappy, the writer-director makes it clear that what causes unhappiness is not the state of being gay but the inability of the gay man to accept his gayness which leads to situations that bring him unhappiness. In Bwakaw, Rene’s acid personality derived from his bitterness, which in turn came from his refusal to accept that he is gay. The longer he refused to face his homosexuality, the more acrid his personality became. Moreover, because he refused to accept his gayness because of social pressure, he inadvertently led on a girl to wait forever for him to marry her, which after many years he could not and did not do. In the end, in spite of all his attempts to make up for his sin, it was too late and the lady in turn rejected him. Similarly, because he could not present his true colors, the tricycle driver was misled into thinking he was just a regular drinking partner, so that when Rene made a gesture of gay affection, he caused himself to be repudiated and once again thrown into depression.

On the other hand, where many gay movies portray loneliness and pain as the natural state of gay men who want men but cannot have them (i.e. with the blessings of society), Bwakaw propounds the notion that happiness is not a state that one passively inherits from a given situation but the product of a conscious and definite choice to be happy. Unlike many gay movies where the gay hero ends up alone and lonely, Bwakaw tells us that there is life for a gay man even if he is rejected by the object of his affection or lust. In fact, the gay man can be truly happy living by himself, even when he is bereft of a boyfriend or any companion for that matter. In short, if the gay man chooses to be happy, solitude does not have to mean loneliness. It could actually bring about contentment in self-containment.