Dogs are thought to be man’s best friend, at their owners’ sides in sickness and in health. But can people be selfless enough to return the favor? In writer/director Jun Robles Lana’s Bwakaw, the eponymous dog (canine star “Princess”) comes into the life of elderly, curmudgeonly loner Rene (Eddie Garcia) and thus injects him with a newfound sense of humanity. While the story is somewhat of a retread of many “inspirational dog” films, like My Dog Skip or Hachiko: A Dog’s Story, it is executed fairly well, and the man and dog have great chemistry to propel the story and draw in viewer interest despite its flaws.

The recently retired Rene lives alone and without the 21st century comfort of electricity. His only friend is former stray Bwakaw, who he still keeps at arm’s length, as she only lives on his porch. Nevertheless, Bwakaw is glued to Rene’s side as he takes pedi-cabs around town and hangs out with his former co-workers at the local post office. Crusty Rene frequently gets in scrapes with many, including macho pedi-cab driver Sol (Rez Cortez), who is opposed to transporting canines, and flamboyant hair salon owners Zaldy and Tracy (Soxie Topaxio and Armida Siguion Reyna), who only put up with him because Zaldy is a childhood friend. Rene is also a homosexual, but hasn’t fully come to terms with that, despite his old age.

One day, Bwakaw faints outside and Rene must rush her to the veterinarian. Surprisingly, Sol is the only pedi-cab driver who will take him. As Rene cares for Bwakaw, his heart starts to thaw, and he lets the dog sleep in his house and begins to allow other people into his life.

On the whole, the cast is very effective. Garcia is able to carry the film as the secretly sensitive Rene, and this is apparently a departure for him as he is famous in his native Philippines for being a macho action star. However, the true star of the film is his canine leading lady, the petite Golden Retriever mix Princess, who is also a big deal in the Philippines. Not only is she the star of her own soap opera, she is also a trained bomb-sniffing dog. As much as dogs are able to, she seems to emote a great deal without the overly rehearsed mannerisms of other dog stars like Eddie from Frasier. While they are obviously present for comic relief, the stock gay characters (one has pink hair, one is dresses in drag) go a bit too far into caricature territory, like they flew The Birdcage and landed in this more sedate film.

The main flaw here is the predictability of the story. The “dog movie” can easily get schmaltzy or derivative, and this one is good, but doesn’t go to great lengths to differentiate itself. Take Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy, for example – that film ultimately was a greater meditation on loneliness and isolation. This film tries to tackle those themes, but comes up a bit short, lacking a certain depth.

The film does look great, however. The editing and shot composition are very straightforward, but the saturated colors of the rural Philippines are lovely and have an overall lush appearance. The production design is also noteworthy, as Rene’s home is becomes a visual representation of him (and the symbolism doesn’t hit you over the head).

Bwakaw never set out to reinvent the wheel, and it doesn’t necessarily have to. The relationship between man and dog here is affecting, and the film is beautiful to look at. The film is slight yet entertaining and will probably please a decent percentage of audiences – who doesn’t like a good onscreen dog?

The Upside: The film is shot well, and Princess sometimes gives Uggie a run for his money (and can apparently sniff out explosives, too).

The Downside: The story isn’t very original… and the stock gay characters are a bit too over-the-top.

On the Side: This is the Philippines’ official 2013 Oscar entry for Best Foreign Language Film.

Grade: B

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