To call it a film about nursing -- or nursing students -- would be off-the-mark. Rather, When Timawa Meets Delgado describes something more abstract: the nursing phenomenon. What is the significance of so many Filipinos taking up nursing in the hopes of working abroad? The movie throws the discussion in a wide variety of modes: talking-head interviews with real nurses and students, documentary footage of the poor Visayan region (including a visit to a sick farmer in his hut), and the fictional stories of the two titular characters -- told through music videos, fake advertisements, poems, and other more conventional dramatic vignettes. It's a feat of rigorous assemblage of a treasure's worth of videotape. The result is often funny and inventive, but it can also seem like a lot of noise.
But God bless the creation that is Ruben Timawa. Amid the sketchy wilderness of the movie, he's a gay character whose dignity reveals itself slowly, surprisingly, and so unassumingly that it's an experience of transcendence upon its final impact, when the credits roll. We first see him as a fairy with a pink umbrella travelling away from his ricefield hometown to the tune of a parodic folk song -- surely a heightened exoticized vision of everything about him that is easy to pigeonhole: an effeminate rural curiosity. But something happens along the way: He becomes more human, even if he remains somewhat the same fairy we first see.
Through the movie's staccato styles, we find out he's a Palanca-winning poet with a natural pop wit in conversation and a romantic, naive motivation for nursing: to rejoin the former activist he fell in love with now living in the U.S. His poem entitled "The Pig" (see clip above) is the movie's funniest, most genius moment -- recited in three languages (one in local gayspeak), it toys with image and self-image to approach identity. In the movie's final act of subversive intelligence, the actor Kristoffer Grabato sheds his Timawa persona to be interviewed as himself. It's a fitting final act in the humanization of the character -- a long way from the stereotype of his introductory scene. We're not even sure if the actor is gay in real life, but by then it hardly matters. He's an artist who's also a registered nurse, and apparently one terrific actor, a man who, in that one scene, inspires not only awe but respect. He offers a speech about the dignity of nurses who stay in the Philippines to work -- the preachiest the film comes to delivering its social politics, which elsewhere is indirect or muddled. The movie's gender politics, however, is beyond reproach.