Every once in a while, I find a film so beautiful, moving and relatable that I find it hard to sum up in words. “Ang Nawawala” is such a film. Its subtelty and poignancy has cut my heart out and got me tongue-tied. It is so painfully sweet, so depressingly good that I am writing this review with so much and nothing to say at the same time. The film left me as speechless as its protagonist, and whatever writing I’m doing will probably end up as confused ramblings of an emotional girl.
Ironically, this is going to be a very long review containing NECESSARY SPOILERS. I am attempting to expound on the undertones which I can’t do without giving out some details. And because I’m getting really carried away.
“Ang Nawawala” (What Isn’t There) focuses on 20-year old Gibson Bonifacio (Dominic Roco) who has not spoken in ten years. Because of trauma and guilt, he pulled away from the world, setting up his selective mutism as a wall. He comes home for Christmas to a dysfunctional family. His mother (Dawn Zulueta), a woman distant and broken, welcomes him with a cold heart. And when mother and son first look at each other after a long time, we see the pain and longing in Gibson’s eyes.
The Bonifacios are dysfunctional in a very quiet, somber way. They sit over dinner with awkward formality. Although the father (Boboy Garrovillo) tries to cheer everyone up, the cloud hanging over their heads is too heavy to disperse. We see a family portrait of depression. And when we notice one vacant chair on the other end of the table, we understand that something is really missing in the picture.
Gibson moves around the house like a ghost. He locks himself up in his bedroom, smokes pot, and plays his records. Even when he is spending time with his family, he doesn’t really connect with them completely. He tries, with the help of a video camera. He records moments he finds to be special, no matter how ordinary they are. And then he mashes them up in his computer, adding tracks of music that describe how he feels about these memories. He also reconnects with an old friend, Teddy (Alchris Galura), who introduces him to the local music scene. Here, he meets Enid (Annicka Dolonius). They are into the same things and she doesn’t judge him when she finds out he doesn’t talk. She becomes someone he can finally talk with, albeit not without his iPhone. And as her name implies, she brings “life” back to his existence.
NOW, JUST WHY I LOVE THIS FILM.
The film is strange and familiar at the same time. It’s strange for a Filipino film, even for an indie. You can find Wes Anderson-ism throughout the film, but I think it is generally Western than it is specifically American. At some points, I think it is quite French, especially the mise-en-scène. The retro furniture and decors, the heavy draperies, the sweaters and floral dresses, and the confined atmosphere of the rooms remind me of Xavier Dolan’s touch on coming-of-age, friendships, the mother-son relationship, and love, realistically speaking.
It is also very familiar because the dysfunctional family is not strictly a Western reality. It exists even in the Philippines, and yes, even in the absence of violence. This hiding-in-plain-sight dysfunction may be a product of the Western lifestyle. But this problem is not confined to the American middle-class. The modern Filipino family now faces deeper, more complex issues. They do not always live melodramatically, like mainstream Filipino movies lead us to believe. They are not always shattered. Sometimes, they stay together, living like a flatline. They deal with uncertainty, anxiety, loss and depression in different ways. They may come home to sit on the same dining table, but the rest of the day they may lead their lives in isolation. Taking a vow of silence may not be common, but a lot of people find refuge in some form of seclusion.
The film relays this social problem in all subtlety. It gives us the opportunity to peak into the lives of an upper-middle class family. Like guests we walk into their home, and the moment we step through the door, we feel that something is wrong but we cannot quite put our finger on it. But the more and more we visit, we start seeing what has befallen this family. We realize what has pushed Gibson to hide behind his camera and escape through drugs, art and music.
Dominic Roco makes it so easy for us to fall in love with Gibson. It’s not because of his good looks but his ability to bring such a rare personality to life. It is already hard to find a person like Gibson in real life (but you can, I have), much more portray it on the screen in such a natural manner. Roco truly owns the character. He is able to speak what Gibson feels without opening his mouth. At times, it seems like he’s looking right through you. Other times, it seems like he’s pulling back. It’s so hard to believe that this wallflower is only a fictional character. Whatever effort Roco took to stay in character doesn’t show at all.
But before the actor can bring a character to life, the filmmakers must first conceive it. Hands down to Marie Jamora and Ramon de Veyra for creating such a brilliant and believable character. (Again, yes it is believable, if you’ve met someone like him.) Gibson actually reminds me of Charlie in Stephen Chbosky’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” Both are quiet, naive, awkward and withdrawn. And they both have a strange, sweet way of loving things. The roots of their problems are quite similar and they find escape in the same things. But while Charlie can be Holden Caulfield annoying, Gibson is just too charming. I love how Gibson’s social isolation has only made him more beautiful. He is filled with pain but he is not pathetic. His angst keeps him confined behind his walls but he does not let it grow into anger like we all probably did as teenagers.
He understands the people around him. He humbly accepts whatever treatment he gets, even if it seems unfair. He takes it all in and keeps it to himself. Sounds too perfect? Well he has a flaw: he doesn’t understand himself. Blaming himself for the death of his brother Jaime, he started thinking that he is only getting what he deserves. He holds on to his brother’s memory. He keeps Jaime alive by speaking to a character which may or may not have been him, had he lived. By speaking to no one but Jaime’s ghost, he gives up his voice - his right to be heard, his right to exist. He thinks that by shutting himself up, by punishing himself, he gives his mother what she wants. But doing this cannot bring his brother back. It only makes his mother lose another son as he becomes almost like his dead brother – the one who isn’t there.
Still, he finds a way to love people from afar, through the lens of his camera. The camera serves as both his barrier and his door, through which he can let people into his life without actually leaving the confines of his self-imposed exile. But he cannot be happy, loving and living this way. Eventually, he has to learn to love himself. He needs to start speaking to the living, only then can he truly start to live. So he allows himself to fall in love. But though he eventually learns that it’s not going to work out, he still musters up the courage to say the things that ought to be said. Loving Enid showed him that it is possible to live again. And if he can be himself with a girl he just met, then he can also be himself again with his own family.
"Ang Nawawala" speaks so much about letting go - of fears, of broken hearts, of bitter and cherished memories. At this point of the story, Gibson has already let go of his fear. But before he can let go of his broken heart, he has to move on from his terrible past and the beautiful memories that keep it intact. He has to stop holding on to what is no longer there in order to fully connect with the things that are right in front of him. So in a very heartbreaking scene at the cemetery, he and Jaime’s ghost hang out one last time. The teary-eyed twins say their wordless goodbyes with each puff of smoke. I almost forgot to breathe. Watching the joint burn and grow shorter, I felt how painful a goodbye it was. I myself wished that the joint could last forever.
Gibson also has to put down the camera and become more than a mere observer of life. So at the dawn of a new year, he looks up at the fireworks; first, through the camera, then with his own eyes. By removing the barrier, he looks directly at the world for the first time. After ten years, he is finally actually there.
But he has one more thing to do. He has to face the constant reminder of his regret. He has to stand up to his mother by answering the question she asked him ten years ago: “Sino ka? Sino ka?” He did not answer then, and so he could not accept that he was the one who lived. But this time, he speaks to her directly. ”Mom,” he says. “It’s me. Gibson.” And he finally gives himself the right to be heard, the right to live.
“Ang Nawawala” is not your average coming-of-age dramedy. It is a moving tale about growing up in the most unlikely fashion. It speaks of love honestly. It tells of letting go, forgiveness and acceptance. It also takes on the question of identity in the most unusual way – by showing us how someone who ceased to live at such a young age could find the strength to proclaim himself as someone who deserves to live and be loved.
I love Jamora’s film not because it’s different, or because it has that quirky air of “500 Days of Summer.” I love it because it is uplifting, hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time. It also touches on depression – something Filipino cinema is yet to tackle. The film shows how people cope with emptiness and loss – whether by finding a rebound, by taking control, or by taking a vow of silence. I thank Jamora for her guts to show something that is largely unheard of, and for doing it so artistically and sincerely. It might not be relatable for everyone, but for those who can relate, “Ang Nawawala” has a loud and powerful voice. I can relate because depression is my neighborhood. And in this neighborhood, we are all in our own forms of exile. At some point in our lives, we feel like we are not truly alive. We only exist but we do not live. What this film shows is not just that love can make your heart beat again, but that living is truly about finding the things that aren’t there. Living is about finding missing pieces. That missing piece can be a lover, a family, or yourself. And for those like us who look at the world through lenses, who live behind barriers, it could be that key to happiness which we may have dropped somewhere a long time ago.