MANILA, Philippines - An independent drama that explores the loneliness and missed opportunities of an ailing, 70-year-old gay man is testing Philippine sensibilities about sexuality and hoping to advance in the Academy Awards' foreign-language film competition next year.
"Bwakaw," or "Voracious," has received positive reviews and local awards and is doing the rounds of international film festivals in Toronto, New York, Hawaii and Tokyo.
Writer and director Jun Robles Lana says the movie is named after a stray dog with a voracious appetite for life that has a bond with the main character, Rene. Bwakaw's zest for life contrasts with Rene's grumpy disposition.
Rene came out of the closet in his twilight years, thinks it is too late for love and only awaits his own death. He has made a will and labeled his few possessions to be given away to friends. He even bought a coffin at a funeral home's closing-out sale.
But when Bwakaw dies after an illness, Rene, played by veteran actor Eddie Garcia, finds new appreciation for life. "It's the dog that basically teaches him to live life to the fullest," Lana said in an interview Wednesday.
"It's really more about loneliness, although you can't help that some people or critics are branding it a gay film simply because the character is gay, but that's really beside the point," he said.
Lana admits that while Filipinos are generally gay-friendly — the most popular movie star is Vice Ganda, an out-and-out gay comedian — local mainstream audiences might not be too receptive to a serious take on homosexuality in the conservative and predominantly Roman Catholic society.
"We tend to look at gay characters as iconic, funny characters," he said. "So when you make a movie like this, you really have to market it in such a way that it would be more appealing to them."
He said that the movie focuses on the comedy aspect in order to appeal to a wider audience.
But the filmmaker hopes that between the laughs, moviegoers will find that it is more than a comedy.
He said he made the film with the intention to honour his mentor, writer Rene Villanueva, who died in 2007. He described Villanueva, who came out as gay later in his life, as generous and harsh at the same time, and an inspiration for the main character, Rene.
Lana said the drama "eventually became a story about growing old, missed opportunities, about how desire is inextricable from our lives."
For Lana, who started in art house films but has for the last few years been mainly involved in commercial movies, "Bwakaw" was also "a return to my roots."
"I did not expect this film which I made for very personal reasons would resonate with so many people and not just Filipinos," he said. "I'm really just thankful for all the wonderful things going our way."
The Philippines has submitted entries to the Academy Awards for many years but has never been nominated or even short-listed.
"Bwakaw" is one of around 40 films entered in the foreign-language category this year. The list is to be pared to 10 late this year and to the final five nominees by January.