With attempts at protecting its queer population being stuck in Congress for nearly two decades (a proposed Anti-Discrimination bill repeatedly dismissed), the Philippines’ attitude towards its LGBTQ+ population seems to circle around a culture of glass closets and deceitful tolerance. Thus, it is unsurprising that they receive little to no representation in mainstream media. Samantha Lee’s debut, Baka Bukas, centres around Alex; a 23-year-old Manila creative played by Jasmine Curtis-Smith. Alex is an out lesbian. The only person Alex has not come out to is her childhood best friend, Jess (Louise Delos Reyes) whom she is helplessly in love with. While not the most politically charged or heart-wrenching of films, Lee’s colourful encapsulation of the experiences of a millennial Filipina lesbian paves the way for the normalisation of truthful LGBTQ+ representation in the Philippines
Baka Bukas, which translates to Maybe Tomorrow, was inspired by the director’s own life – Lee also penning the film’s screenplay. One of the most obvious reasons for the title is Alex’s ‘mañana’ attitude in regards revealing her love and identity to Jess. While Curtis-Smith embodies Alex’s cool demeanour so effortlessly, Delos Reyes portrays the bubbly starlet, Jess, in a way that her more traditional beliefs (see Jess’ minor life crisis amidst her best friend coming out to her) comes off as comical rather than insensitive. With questions like “so it’s like best friends, but with making out?”, she portrays a number of Filipinos who were just never given a perspective outside the heteronormative lens. When Jess realises she has also fallen in love with her best friend, Lee does not erase the possibility of the character being bisexual; the character considering the label herself. The well-worn best friend trope ensues — to the instant recognition of both lesbian viewers and the rom-com obsessed Filipinos.
The film further attempts to capture the hearts of its target audience with its distinct aesthetic: soft pastel hues, neon lights, and an abundance of every Instagram feed must have you could think of (record players, denim jackets, they’re all there). Samantha Lee’s proclaimed love for directors such as Wes Anderson and Sofia Coppola is present throughout, but she pays homage in a way that doesn’t restrict her own cinematic voice.
Are there instances when the vivid colours and intricately crafted milieu are incapable of saving a rather monochromatic script? Sure. The film uncomfortably relies on expositional dialogue and often crosses the line between quirky and just plain awkward. When meeting Alex’s friends for the first time, Jess faces the unapologetic Julo and his blunt remarks about her messy Instagram feed. He scolds her to use ‘VSCO cam and Snapseed’ in the corner of a nightclub. Perhaps, Lee wanted to capture just that: the complex journey of growing into yourself during your twenties; full of hiccups and uncertainty, with everything and nothing happening all at once.
It is easy to dismiss Baka Bukas as another romantic-comedy-drama that uses a well-worn formula and quotable cheesy lines like ‘I’m the number one fan of who you are at 3 am’. But what makes the film stand out is how it captures the Manila creative scene in a way that feels familiar yet so untouched. After pitching a lesbian television series, Alex’s producers argue that the country is not ready … while simultaneously questioning whether coming out was ‘still a thing’.
Alex inevitably changes the love story into a heterosexual one. However, she is still not given the green light because her show starred a female protagonist that lacked the “coyness” and “demure” that the country is used to seeing. The film is incredibly self-aware. Lines such as “this is not some gay indie film” (another criticism Alex’s pitch faced) poke fun at how Baka Bukas’ own kissing scene was filmed so delicately in low-key lighting. This creative decision, intentional or not, allowed the film to be released nationwide under a PG rating.
Many have criticised the film for glossing over the harsher realities of most Filipino coming out experiences. In such a hyper-Catholic country, many LGBTQ+ stories that do make it onto the screen showcase intense hardship and renunciation. While this is tragically the reality faced by many, Lee’s exploration into the life of a lesbian who was lucky enough to be accepted by her family and friends is still worth sharing. A singular narrative, especially one rooted in such specificity, cannot somehow represent all stories and struggles. With well-known actors accepting non-stereotypical queer roles in a lesbian directed film, representation in the mainstream seems promising. Baka Bukas is not only a form of escapism but a source of hope — perfectly encompassed by the title’s alternative English translation, ‘Maybe it’s open’.
Baka Bukas is yet to be released internationally on streaming platforms. Samantha Lee is currently working on her second feature, Billie and Emma.
by Graciela Mae
Graciela is a Filipina studying Film, Television and Digital Production at Royal Holloway, University of London. She has been described as both a ‘grandpa’ and a ‘wannabe boyband member’. Her favourite films include Rushmore, Cléo from 5 to 7, 20th Century Women, and Carol. You can find her on twitter: @notgracielamae