‘Bwakaw’ and all that buzz
LOS ANGELES—Now that we’ve seen Jun Robles Lana’s “Bwakaw,” we understand why it was the buzz in the last Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival.
“Bwakaw”—a comedy-drama which won the best actor (Eddie Garcia), audience choice and Netpac awards at the fest—will be screened at the Toronto International Film Festival (under Contemporary World Cinema) and the New York Film Festival (Main Slate).
Fortissimo Films, a multinational film production, sales and distribution company, has already acquired the worldwide rights to “Bwakaw.”
Refreshing and wonderfully restrained, “Bwakaw” is alternately funny and poignant as it narrates the life of Rene (portrayed by Eddie) a grumpy loner in his 70s, and his dog (Princess) in a small town.
In his script and direction, Jun tackled such themes as missed opportunities, second chances, fears of growing old and alone, and friendship. The film’s rustic Laguna location, as lensed by Carlo Mendoza, adds to its appeal.
Jun dedicated the film to his writing mentor, the late playwright and author Rene O. Villanueva—who also inspired the main character.
In her feature film acting debut, the dog Princess, a last- minute replacement, manages to steal scenes from the estimable Eddie. She’s “even smarter than some actors I know,” Jun quipped.
Bwakaw, Tagalog street slang for voracious or greedy, is Princess’ character’s name.
Jun, a Communication Arts graduate of the University of Santo Tomas, was 33 when he became the youngest member of the Palanca Awards for Literature’s Hall of Fame in 2006. Now 39, Jun said “Bwakaw” was a return to his roots of writing acclaimed screenplays after directing commercial films.
If he stays on the path he blazes with “Bwakaw” and makes good his plan to direct two old scripts of his which sound very promising, Philippine cinema may have a formidable new voice.
Below are excerpts from our e-mail interview:
What was your inspiration for the story?
I wrote “Bwakaw” as a way of remembering my writing mentor, celebrated Filipino playwright Rene Villanueva, who died in 2007. When I started the screenplay, all I had was a fictional character I based heavily on Rene, a man who is always at odds with himself and the world, and who is at once generous and harsh. The character fascinated me enough to build a story around him, playing on themes that have personal resonance—time, memory and the loss of it, vulnerability and how desire is inextricable from our lives.
Structurally, I envisioned “Bwakaw” as a narrative made up of vignettes about opportunities gone by and second chances; the fear of growing old and growing old alone; and friendship—particularly with a dog.
You show admirable restraint here. How did you set the tone that you wanted?
From the beginning it was clear to me that the best way to capture the spirit of the film, especially the unbearable silences and sadness in Rene’s life, was to be sparing with my coverage and camera movement. I knew I needed music to highlight certain parts, but it had to be very subdued. To show that life has become a boring routine for Rene, I employed a lot of repetition in terms of shots. Color is a vital part of the storytelling, and my cinematographer Carlo Mendoza and I took great pains in grading and regarding the film to achieve the look of faded photographs that gradually come into color when Rene falls in love.
Since “Bwakaw” is a tribute to my mentor, I also didn’t want the tone to be bleak. When I pitched the concept to Cinemalaya, I told the committee that I would employ a lot of humor in the storytelling. I felt that with humor to break and punctuate the silences in Rene’s life, I would be able to balance the tone and also show Rene’s tender side and reveal other facets of his character.
A very favorable online review by Oggs Cruz praised your earlier screenplays but lamented your directorial work. Cruz wrote that “Bwakaw” seems to be your “belated apology” for the “misdirection” of your career. Was it intentional on your part to do something different from your previous films?
I don’t regret doing what I had to do to get to this point. Yes, “Sa Pusod Ng Dagat,” “Jose Rizal,” “Muro-Ami” and “Bagong Buwan” brought me a lot of recognition and made me the go-to writer for high profile, award-winning festival films, but it also pigeonholed me. My background in theater, as resident playwright of Peta (Philippine Educational Theater Association), and being a 12-time Palanca winner at age 26, didn’t help, either. If anything, my achievements only solidified people’s perception that I couldn’t do mainstream.
For a time, it was difficult getting a sustainable writing job. Much as I loved my art, I had a family to support, so I made an effort to refuse offers to do more films in the vein of my previous work, and shifted to television, writing a lot of commercial dramas and soap operas that proved to be highly successful. It was only natural that the films I was commissioned to direct later on would be as commercial and mainstream.
When I decided to join Cinemalaya this year, it was because I thought it was time to return to my roots. Writing, producing and directing “Bwakaw” was quite liberating. For the first time, there were no templates; I was on my own, relying on my instincts and resources. It was scary but immensely freeing—all I had to concentrate on was the story and how to best tell it visually. It was not an easy journey, but worth every moment.
Are you surprised by the audience and critical acclaim for the film?
I was certain we had a good movie, but I was absolutely not prepared for the reaction it got. The screenings were wild, almost like the audience was spellbound, laughing hysterically at some parts, tearing up at others. I did not expect that by exercising a lot of restraint, audiences would respond even more positively.
How many actors did you seriously consider to play Rene?
Eddie Garcia was my first and only choice.
Once Eddie was on board, what were your discussions like about his approach to the role? What were his own touches?
I had a 50-page character sketch of Rene that I had planned to give to Tito Eddie. But a curious thing happened during our camera test. After getting into costume and makeup, Tito Eddie still felt something was missing. He saw the gold rings that our production designer Joey Luna was wearing, and felt that they would be a nice touch.
Tito Eddie borrowed the rings, and as soon as he wore them, he became Rene. The mannerisms, voice, walk—he had the character down pat. There was no need to give him any character sketch. Every emotional nuance was sublime. Probably the only thing I had to do was to remind him to minimize his ad libs, which were always hysterical, by the way.
How did you find Princess?
Tito Eddie had been training for months with another dog that was originally cast to play Bwakaw. But a few weeks before the shoot, the owner accepted a last-minute, probably more lucrative, gig for his dog and unceremoniously abandoned us. Casting the role was one of our biggest challenges. We couldn’t have just any dog—it had to be a trained mix-breed that looked like a stray.
I thought of trying my luck on YouTube. I came across an old video of a dog camp that specialized in training aspins (Philippine mix-breeds). That’s where we found Princess, a two-year-old half golden retriever/half aspin who is also a highly trained bomb-sniffing dog.
We had only three weeks to teach Princess new tricks for the film. But she is amazingly intelligent, even smarter than some actors I know, and she learned everything quickly.
It took us at least three hours to get that one shot of Princess closing her eyes and then opening them again ever so slightly to gaze at Rene for the last time. A strict rule was implemented on the set to protect the bond that has grown between Tito Eddie and Princess: No one was allowed to interact with the dog but Tito Eddie and the trainer.
The film’s provincial setting adds to the film’s character and refreshing look. Where did you shoot?
Scouting for locations, our first order of the day was to find Rene’s house, one that reeks of sadness and loss and falling into slow decay. I felt that the house was a character in itself, and as important as the dog, and should be a direct reflection of Rene’s bleak outlook. Once we found the house in San Pablo, Laguna, it only made sense to look for the other locations in nearby areas.
Did you grow up in the province? You captured the unhurried pace and essence of small towns.
Both of my parents are from Bicol, but I’m a city boy through and through, born and raised in Makati. I saw “Bwakaw” as a movie about silences, and that probably dictated the unhurried pace. On one hand, it’s about our inability to put emotions into words. On the other, it’s a character study, with a lot of solitary and mood shots to show Rene’s psychology and mental state.
The casting of the other parts—Rez Cortez, Soxy Topacio, Armida Siguion- Reyna, Joey Paras, Luz Valdez, Allan Paule and Gardo Versoza, among others—is inspired
Because of budget constraints and scheduling conflicts, we had to shoot the movie for 10 days straight. To finish in time, we had to cast the best possible actor for every part. Except for Princess and Tita Armida, I had worked with practically everyone. It was Ferdy Lapuz’s idea to cast Armida Siguion-Reyna in the role of Alicia. I thought that was brilliant.
What are your thoughts as the film heads to Toronto and then to New York?
I’m excited and extremely humbled to attend these festivals alongside some of the greatest filmmakers in the world. I plan to watch as many films as humanly possible, listen to filmmakers discuss their craft and be inspired and energized by their passion. My producers Ferdy and Tonee Acejo are coming with me to Toronto. We’re trying to have Tito Eddie join us in New York.
What are your next projects?
I am looking forward to producing and directing two old scripts of mine. One is an edgy comedy entitled “Ang Dalawang Mrs. Reyes,” and the other a period film called “Kwentong Barbero,” about the first female barber in a male-dominated small town.
(E-mail the columnist at [email protected] Follow him at http://twitter.com/nepalesruben.)
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