The open secret of gay trade among boatmen of Pagsanjan is the backdrop of the movie Sagwan. Oddly, an opening disclaimer tells us that this is pure fiction, implying gay sex tourism doesn’t actually happen in the beautiful innocent provinces of the Philippines – perhaps another concession to the moral guardians of cinema such as the MTRCB. The irony is that the milieu is the only aspect of the movie that feels true. The story and characters fashioned around it have a corny synthetic flavor.
We should be used to it by now. From miners in Baguio to snatchers in Quiapo to caretakers of lighthouses, many of our filmmakers are not very concerned about realistic depictions of people’s lives as they merely use the surface to project the usual gay fantasies. In Sagwan, when boatmen begin the day by gathering their boats in one place, we barely get the details of their routine, but we do get ample shots of their shirtless torsos. Am I complaining? Not really. It’s a genre of acquired taste: the unrealistic sexy movie. Just because there’s no substance doesn’t mean there’s no fun. Other genres are guilty of the same sin. Romantic comedies, for example, can have a completely deluded view of the corporate world, the advertising industry, rich and poor people, but get away with it. The gay erotic genre gets little justice from the mainstream public. Maybe there’s genre discrimination.
Ryan Dungo plays exactly the same role as that other Dungo in Binyag (Ran Domingo, formerly known as Randolph Dungo): a virgin hunk with an affinity for water whose relationship with a woman is hampered by his possible attraction for other men, in this case for his best friend, the most sought after hustler in the pond (Dennis Torres). As in Binyag, we hear his thoughts in voice-overs, and it’s predictably existential bullshit. The tag line – “How it feels matters more than who you’re with” – sounds like a nihilist credo, something a pervert might say to justify his seductions. It's an icky message, even for a liberal like me. But with awesomely composed sexual scenes, I almost believe it.
Director Monti Puno Parungao, who’s also the cinematographer, proves to be a wizard at conjuring heightened sexual tension. Even drunken banter where practically nothing happens between a bunch of hot guys and two trannies is gripping. The men here have similar-looking features, suggesting mixed races, from years of foreign tourists breeding with the locals. One of the highlights is a scene in which a customer asks the young boatman in his room (Erie Obsena) to show his armpits, while two other hunks peep from a window, pressed against each other. The scene is shot and edited with great precision that we’re sucked into its dizzying erotic charge. I haven’t recovered from it, to be honest. It makes me wonder what the filmmakers can do if they devoted the same attention to finding substance.