Subtlety is the crux of LGBTQ+ cinema. With its original purpose to bypass decency laws and codes, longing glances and brief physical touches are still more present in international queer film than even the oft-central coming-out plotline. Yet in “Baka Bukas,” director and writer Samantha Lee combines both ruling tropes of the genre — subtlety and coming out — while simultaneously emitting a freshness and heart-wrenching authenticity.
Lee wrote the film, her directorial debut, to reflect her experiences as a Filipina lesbian. In an interview with CNN Philippines, she asked rhetorically, “Why can’t we have a film that shows the happy side of being a lesbian in the Philippines?”
For the most part, Lee created that film. While issues of career security and public acceptance still plague its queer characters, Alex (Jasmine Curtis-Smith) is happily out to all but her best friend Jess (Louise de los Reyes). This includes her mother, who nags her about being a lesbian with no girlfriend — a moment that is overwhelmingly affecting in its intended mundanity.
Falling in love makes the world rose-tinted, and Lee strives for those visuals in the film’s apex; as the two female leads fall, their world is awash with a pink-tinted, hazy focus and bubbly lens flares.
Curtis-Smith excels most at her craft during the silent, subtle moments — a glance at the passenger seat of her car, a soft smile — rendering delos Reyes her perfect foil. Louise delos Reyes splendidly endows Jess with a charming loudness and effervescence, allowing her to be affably laughed at instead of with.
Both actresses shine in their shared nonverbal scenes; these romantic and dreamy montages are the emotional nucleus of “Baka Bukas,” though they leave explicit, spoken moments to be desired. While the leads’ love is undeniable, a greater exploration of Jess’ queer self-realization beyond career implications or a mere romantic conversation would have allowed their relationship to exist at once as both dreamy and realistic.
Nevertheless, the film is a masterpiece. With its stunning visuals and a gorgeously crafted, poignant story, Lee provides both queer representation in Philippine cinema and Philippine representation in queer cinema through her beautifully resilient tale of two girls in love.
There will be screenings of ‘Baka Bukas’ on Sunday, June 18 at 7 p.m. at the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood in Berkeley and on Thursday, June 22 at 7 p.m. at Victoria Theatre in San Francisco as part of Frameline41, the San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival.