Francis Xavier Pasion’s “Bwaya” – 2014 Busan Film Review

Watching Francis Xavier Pasion’s film “Bwaya” (2014), I was awestruck by the shots Neil Daza, the film’s cinematographer, was able to capture. Having shot on location in actual marshlands, it must have been quite a Herculean task to record the stillness and savage beauty of the area while balancing expensive, fragile camera equipment on wooden banana boats. And when the film switched perspectives – featuring sweeping aerial tracking shots that gave as much attention to the rippling of the water and the green of the vegetation as it did the main characters – I was so happy to be watching this film.

Yet aside from these few fleeting moments, I found very little else to praise about “Bwaya.”  To state the premise of the story would most likely result in loud guffaws followed by a response of, “Really? Are you serious?!” Based on a true story, Pasion’s movie exploits the family of Rowena Romano, a young girl who had the misfortune of having been attacked and killed by a crocodile. Pasion wastes very little time laying on a pseudo-mystical tone to his film with a voiceover retelling of a local creation myth about two crocodiles attempting to flee back into the sea as the floodwaters recede. The story has obvious literal connections to the plot proper, but inserted sporadically throughout, it achieves nothing except to annoy viewers with a pseudo-mysticism that is out of place in a film that purports to be a realistic depiction of horrific events.

If that wasn’t enough, the film traffics in blatant examples of poverty porn. It is impossible to ignore the fact that Rowena’s family is impoverished, but Pasion includes far too many shots or scenes that showcase the poverty for no other purpose than to seemingly remind the audience just how terrible Rowena, and the other families living in these marshlands, have it compared to you. It’s as if the director didn’t trust that the audience would feel enough pity or sympathy for their plight; I certainly felt no occasion to cry at Pasion’s manipulative techniques.

Aside from these reasons, my biggest gripe with “Bwaya” is the conflicting tones. Although Asian cinema is known for mismatching various genres to great success, the combination of the slow pace of an art film with the melodramatics found in Filipino tragedies spoils what few merits “Bwaya” does have. An example of this can be found when the cuts from a scene of Rowena’s mother hysterically crying are followed by languid shots of the marshlands. This edit is so jarring that the picture feels as if it had two directors with very different sensibilities, each making a film with the same premise.

In the end “Bwaya” was a failed cinematic experiment. Having never seen any of Pasion’s back catalog except for trailers for his films “Jay” (2009) and “Sampaguita, National Flower” (2010), all I can say is that the director seems to have a real proclivity in exploiting tragedies, trafficking in the worst kinds of manipulation that not only fail to honor the victims in the film, but also the audience who had expected to watch something that did not insult their intelligence. Pasion may well be a fine filmmaker one day, but as of now after viewing “Bwaya,” I will be very cautious if I find myself anywhere near a theater playing a film of his.

“Bwaya” made its international premiere at the 2014 Busan International Film Festival.