Ara Chawdhury’s Miss Bulalacao (2015) begins familiarly enough: gay teenager Dodong competes in a local byukon, and despite a minor hiccup (an uncomfortably long silence to the question, “What is the essence of being a woman?”) wins the Miss Bulalacao title. Much later, with makeup running down his face, Dodong flees from his furious father Poldo. He hides in his flight in a dark stand of trees, only to drown in a flood of celestial light. At this point, things take a weird turn—Dodong glimpses creatures clearly not of this planet and some weeks after the incident, Dodong discovers himself pregnant, to the utter disbelief of Poldo, his stepmother Lisa, and the rest of Bulalacao.
Two strategies of gender appropriation preoccupy Miss Bulalacao, the now-commonplace fiesta byukon and the fantastic pregnancy, and asks where the young transgender growing up gay in a small town locates himself. Complicit in objectifying bodies as its close relative the beauty pageant does, byukons—particularly those held as part of celebrations of small-town fiestas like in Bulalacao’s—are received by the general public as a carnival of curiosities and ultimately serve to marginalize even as it compartmentalizes gender identity. For Dodong sans the byukon title couldn’t be more different than the caricature of a woman “Miss Bulalacao” is (in a frothy ball gown with a padded bust, wearing thick makeup and a tottering wig, parading in front of a sniggering audience): Dodong is a diffident teenager whose crush on Peter, the young son of Bulalacao’s richest and most influential matron Mercy, is expressed in the most familiar terms. He braves shy greetings and smiles to the somewhat unsociable Peter, the highest point of which is a serendipitous meeting at the beach.
As his appropriation of Donna (Cruz) is taken to its fantastic extreme culminating in the improbable mother, Dodong initially becomes a freak in the eyes of Bulalacao, a confirmation of the town’s wariness of his aberration. Only when his burgeoning stomach is deemed miraculous that his pregnancy is tolerated, and Dodong becomes the embodiment of the ideal Catholic female figure, a blameless virgin mother. The mythical story of his pregnancy becomes part of a belief system that explains Peter’s adolescent sulkiness in a childhood episode involving a spirit in a balete tree and Dodong becomes Bulalacao’s common property. He is ambushed by neighbors seeking divine intervention in earthly problems (that Dodong is actually the vessel of a different type of celestial get is beyond the wildest dreams of the town’s inhabitants). As the Virgin Mother 2.0, he is dragged by Mercy—most avid disciple of the Church—as a living relic of her dead religion. “I always strive to be near the Lord,” Sister Mercy intones as she keeps Dodong and Lisa in the best room in her huge house, substitutes her old altar for a new one featuring a grainy selfie of her new virgin mother, and decks the pregnant Dodong, like a beloved santo, in a creamy floor-length dress. Though at odds with the other members of Bulalacao’s religious laity who think that Dodong’s pregnancy is the devil’s work, Sister Mercy persists.
Meanwhile, another wrangling unfolds in a different quarter of Dodong’s life—the reentry of Poldo’s old sweetheart Esme and the added strain of his child’s bizarre pregnancy intensify the latent tension between Poldo and Lisa. It is in Dodong’s unintended hand in the underlying insecurity of his family that Miss Bulalacao confirms the general social unease with regard to LGBTs and meaningful social relationships involving them—the Filipino family, especially. Dodong is to blame for his mother’s death, and to blame for the soured relations between Poldo and Lisa who each take opposing positions concerning him. He is referred to as ilo (orphan)—a label which at first confuses because he calls Lisa “mother” and Poldo is still very much alive. His stepmother treats him as her own child, but Dodong feels sorely the void that his absentee father leaves in his life. Aside from discounts in his fishermen friends’ fresh catch and going to mass with Dodong and Lisa on Sundays, Poldo as father is the volatile drunk who almost always turns to Dodong with impotent violence for being the root cause of his unhappy domestic life. For Dodong, his pregnancy is not only about being finally, essentially a woman, but is also his shot at a proper family, of having a child of his own to love and who will be raised in an environment different from the one he grew up in.
That Miss Bulalacao tackles a complex issue—the LGBT vis a vis traditional social structures in a still undeniably conservative Filipino society—in bizarre, fantastic terms (i.e. extraterrestrial impregnation of a biologically male teenager) is also reflected in the conspicuous contrivedness of small-town scenarios and the deliberate shunning of realist markers in its stylistic elements. There is the eerily quiet, almost reverent, opening of the Miss Bulalacao byukon, the austere stage, and the polite applause following the introduction of the contestants—not quite what would expect in a surely much-anticipated event held only once a year. Bulalacao housefronts are painted blue, obviously solely for the film, and a techno soundtrack befitting a sci-fi film and that sometimes seems to be always on the verge of opening Drake’s “Hotline Bling”. Each component of the film’s mise-en-scène is carefully positioned, sometimes in an obvious tableau of an important event, such as when a neighbor’s stricken realization that Dodong’s swollen belly really is full of child is silently witnessed by three other Bulalacao residents. A subtle challenge to Sister Mercy’s officious good-deeding is posed by one of her household helps, a young woman who is constantly either on the foreground to make faces, or in the background dancing.
Screengrab from Miss Bulalacao’s trailer
In the end, however, the termination and consequent demystification of Dodong’s pregnancy (as part of a struggle among entities whose motivations are way above and beyond the concerns of Dodong and the rest of Bulalacao) defeat the transgressive possibilities that Miss Bulalacao poses to the dominant discourse on the Filipino family: Dodong loses his child to the robotic priest who may or may not be working with the aliens, while Lisa the nominal mother becomes an actual one as she is, finally, after many barren years of marriage to Poldo, pregnant with his child. The family is complete and the unnatural transgender threat to it neutralized. Dodong’s new puppy, a gift from Sister Mercy, provides cold comfort: his cuddly new pet is not a good enough substitute for his real child, however unnatural. It is the quiet but obviously deep disappointment with which Dodong receives the caged animal from Peter that upsets more than his anguished cry of loss after learning that his child is dead.
Emerald Flaviano is a Research Associate of the University of the Philippines Third World Studies Center. She is currently involved in a study on social memory in Mendiola while conducting her own research on Cinemalaya and Philippine independent cinema. Her research interests include political culture, popular culture, and Philippine film.