In the opening scene of Samantha Lee’s “Baka Bukas” (“Maybe Tomorrow”), the question is asked: “Is coming out still a thing?”
“Those were the exact words that were said to me during my pitch,” the director explained, to an audience at Outfest Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival. Her film took home the Emerging Talent Award. “You’re the only straight guy in this room, so yeah, you’re gonna ask me that question.”
The Manila-based director’s film, led by one of the biggest stars in the Philippines, represents a big step for the LGBT community. In it, she explores the relationship between 23-year-old creative Alex (Jasmine Curtis-Smith) as she tries to come out to not just herself, but to her best friend and rising actress Jess (Louise Delos Reyes).
“I wanted to see a representation of myself and my friends onscreen,” Lee said to the audience at Outfest Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival. “Traditionally … whenever gay films do get made, they play a lot on the normal stereotypes — the hyper-masculine butch girl and the gay guy who works in the salon.”
The film is shot in lush colors of light blues and pinks with tight shots that “visualize the feeling of this little bubble that they are in.” Describing it as both intimate and suffocating, Lee explained that she “wanted it to feel like a dream. Every time I see a shot, I wanted people to feel like they were falling in love.”
As writer, director and producer of the film, Lee said she wanted to inspire younger kids to “want to come out and not be afraid of it.”
“I feel like the central conflict in most coming out stories, especially in hyper-Catholic countries like the Philippines, is that family will never accept me,” she said. “But what happens when your mother is super OK with it?”
The story follows Alex, who is out to all of her family and friends except Jess, who she has secretly been in love with since they were kids. She explains to her friend Julo, “One of the scariest things about coming out is finding out if the ones you love will stay after,” a heartbreaking reality that many young people may be able to relate to.
The film, which is presented in “Taglish” — a blend of the Tagalog (Filipino) and English languages — is ultimately a millennial film. It reflects the lifestyle of a particular elite Manila youth who is obsessed with making their Instagrams look right and associating themselves with likeminded individuals.
Although Alex is part of a crowd that isn’t particularly likeable, Curtis-Smith’s performance is what really wins the film. Her passivity and calm demeanor make her character real and relatable. A lot of what she is going through is told through what she doesn’t say. As she inhabits spaces, gazes off in her car, goes out on the town and wakes up alone in her bed, we are ultimately given the picture of someone who struggles to accept herself first before the world can be ready to accept her.
The film touches only on the complexities of relationships and identity, and could have done a better job of bringing awareness to more pressing issues, but succeeds in presenting a PG glimpse into the LGBT world from the perspective of privileged youth to the Philippine mainstream.
“The way the mainstream media [in the Philippines] covered it was, ‘Jasmine Curtis makes out with a girl in a new film,’” Lee explained. “[Jasmine and Louise have] both been really good allies for the LGBT community back home, especially since they are actresses with magazine covers and fast food and fashion billboards. For them to stand up for the community was a really big deal.”
The film feels youthful, with a soundtrack full of alternative and indie-pop tracks and an attractive sense of style and fashion (the film’s major sponsor was Bench, a leading Filipino lifestyle and fashion brand, amongst other local Philippine small businesses).
It won the Audience Award and Best Sound, alongside Best Actress for Curtis-Smith, at the Cinema One Originals Digital Film Festival in the Philippines last year.
Lee ultimately hopes that people walk away with the message that “love is universal.”
“That’s actually my favorite review that I get — when straight-identifying people come up to me and go, ‘I cried during this part, ’cause that’s really my life,'” Lee told CNN Philippines. “I just want people to realize we all go through the same experiences, no matter what your gender preference is.”
Additional notes: As an American viewer, it was so refreshing for me to see a slightly sweeter and more genuine side of the Philippines shown onscreen. Much of what is shown on TFC (The Filipino Channel) for Americans is poppy showbiz characters that push the same stereotypes. Lee’s presentation of Manila youth felt oddly familiar. I fell in love with Jasmine Curtis-Smith, as the way she behaved, looked and everything she said and did seemed to resonate with me (and even as a straight girl, she is so gorgeous sans makeup). With breathtaking cinematography and a dreamy soundscape (that my friend Denise who I would have otherwise not known about this film created), it was comforting to see and relate to people like me on screen: Filipino youth finding their way, maybe a little lost, alone and entirely relatable. There were lots of gaps in the plot and many unsaid things, but it captured a unique perspective — and that’s just the start for Philippine cinema.
This article was featured on kore.am.