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'What Isn't There'... really is

Gibson (Dominic Roco) and Enid (Annicka Dolonius) face the music in Marie Jamora’s Cinemalaya entry, Ang Nawawala.

MANILA, Philippines - The Bonifacios live a normal upper middle-class life in suburban Manila, comfortable in a home, where everyone has a room, the living room is hardly used and uniformed household help perform the chores. There would’ve been six of them. But now they are five. And, they all have to deal with it.

Or not. This is the crux of Ang Nawawala, Marie Jamora’s first feature-length film (featured in Cinemalaya), a drama about the ordinary way in which people choose to deal with an extraordinary event: the death of a family member; and, right in the center of this emotional whirlpool is 20-year-old Gibson, the surviving twin.

Though the plot is nothing new — it is similar to Robert Redford’s Ordinary People, adapted from the Judith Guest novel, in that both dealt with accidental deaths within an affluent family — Ang Nawawala is painfully local. Instead of facing the issues, people skirt around them, pretending that all is well. Everyone knows that there is a problem, yet nobody dares to confront it. Emotions are suppressed; composure is maintained. Everyone appears fine.

This is probably why Manila’s upper middle class has long been ignored in Philippine drama: keeping appearances, shutting down, and embracing silence are usually the only sources of comfort for a class that shies away from any overt display of emotions. And Jamora has chosen to portray this as is, without the usual trappings of Philippine drama — no one slaps someone else’s face here. Nobody is stricken with leukemia. There are no prolonged scenes of weeping. Nobody sleeps around. There is sex, yes, but it is brief, clumsy and safe. Hysteria is much easier to film.

Instead, what we see in Ang Nawawala are people who go through their everyday lives, burdened with problems that aren’t expressed. The conversations, co-written by Jamora and Ramon de Veyra, are minimal, tight, just like in real life. Dialogue engages by its absence. No sentence is wasted, whether delivered verbally, on a monitor, or through a phone. There are no insightful soliloquies where the film’s lessons are revealed, and Jamora’s characters aren’t the types who’d give them. They aren’t colorful, exaggerated archetypes. They are real. And it is this reality that hooks us to the very end, giving us half-smiles in certain scenes, discomfort in others.

Here is a film that treats its audience like mature, intelligent adults, allowing us to figure out complex emotions ourselves, instead of having someone break down on screen to do it for us.

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Because of this, it is difficult to write a review without revealing some plot points, so if you don’t like spoilers, stop reading at this point. (Spoiler Alert!)

The Familiar Family

The movie begins with 20-year-old Gibson Bonifacio, played to sad, traumatized perfection by Dominic Roco, returning home to Manila after having spent three years abroad. Using the airport’s carousel at the opening credits, and the brief passing by of a multi-stickered maleta, hints that this young man has traveled a lot, coming and going, back and forth, seemingly trapped in a pattern he has to snap out of, a revolving conveyor belt of, well, emotional baggage: guilt, resentment, insecurities. His shoulders droop from carrying all of that for a decade, plus he looks at life from the safety of his video camera, detached from, rather than, being part of it. He certainly doesn’t look happy to be back.

His first encounter at the airport is with his sister, Corey (Jenny Jamora), whose eagerness to see her brother quickly leads to disappointment. Gibson has not only chosen not to speak, but apparently he hasn’t done so for a long time.

The drive through Manila’s festive streets and the Christmas decor at the Bonifacio home does little to lift his spirits, for this cheery façade is all too quickly ruptured by his mother, Esme (Dawn Zulueta) who, upon realizing that Gibson still chooses to be mute, withdraws back to her television. Never mind that she hasn’t seen her son in three years, and that it is her daughter, Corey, who has taken over such maternal duties as welcoming Gibson, dispensing drugs and dealing with the help. In contrast, Wes (Boboy Garovillo), the good-natured father, is all too eager to show Gibson that all is well in the family. Wes is the smiley face one places at the end of a text that conceals something that might lead to a fight. There is also Promise (Sabrina Man), the youngest, who seems to be spared from the dysfunction by a healthy dose of loving attention and her youth.

At this point, we notice how everyone is dressed. The first time we meet Corey at the airport, she is wearing a quirky vintage outfit. As we meet each of the Bonifacios, we realize that her get-up isn’t just a matter of taste, but ingeniously, a dictate of circumstance. The clothes, styled by Mara Reyes, are crucial to the overall look and feel of the movie, for they provide masks, literally costumes — colorful, print-on-print ensembles that try to bring cheer to a family that has long forgotten how to be happy. This is the environment that Gibson has left. It is the one he goes home to.

Gibson’s silence is only broken when he speaks to his dead brother Jamie (Felix Roco), whom he shares marijuana with. In some shamanic rituals, smoking is a way to connect to the spiritual world, and this is the way Gibson does it. He alternates between the spirit world and his video camera, watching life moments unfold on his video screen, which nobody sees. Silence, music, and marijuana create Gibson’s comfort zone, his refuge, until he meets a girl, curiously named Enid (Annicka Dolonius).

Enid is a true local hipster. She looks fashionably good in secondhand clothes from ukay-ukay, freaks out over vinyl, and is intelligent enough to choose safe sex. She loves vintage OPM as well as independent bands like Ang Bandang Shirley, Flying Ipis and The Strangeness. Oh yes, she also just happens to have a Rachael outfit in her closet for last-minute costume changes. Rachael was a character in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner — an experimental bio-engineered being, called a replicant, who thought she was human.

Why wasn’t her character named Rachael then?

The use of Enid echoes the name of one of the teenagers in Daniel Clowes’ comic book series, Ghost World; clever, because it reinforces three things: first, in the comic book, Enid had her eyes set on a boy, who just happened to be quiet. Second, the self-declared mute, Gibson, lives in a ghost world, a choice which Enid simply accepts. In one scene with his brother, Gibson notes, “She said nothing. That was the best part.” Third, we are reminded that Enid too lives in a ghost world, a limbo torn by her wanting to move on from her past relationship or to remain there.

But isn’t the entire movie trapped in some sort of ghostly world? Until Gibson decides to speak, it seems that everyone in the Bonifacio household is living in limbo, unable to move forward, stuck in the pit of unexpressed emotions. Redemption lies in the one person, who chooses not to, or doesn’t know how to, be redeemed.

There is a scene where we see Dawn lost in thought, lit dramatically by light seeping through the blinds. There is a flicker of sunlight, and then it is gone. This is where the entire family is, lost in that place between light and dark, alternating light and shadow. Here, Jamora secretly holds up a mirror to all of us, making us look at ourselves, our own emotions, in a subtle way — the only manner that we would probably accept. 

Sadly, like many of us, Dawn chooses to go through the dark, dealing with her issues through pills and hours in front of television rather than confronting her demons. It’s easier to avoid something until it’s finally in your face.

Quiet Desperation

This is where the movie’s overall strength lies: how Jamora manages to capture something so intangible, the quiet desperation of her characters, while keeping her audience entertained through the cameos of various indie bands and the comedic presence of three young men: Michael (Marc Abaya), who plays Corey’s boyfriend; Gibson’s best friend Teddy Guinoo (Alchris Galura); and Mac (Kelvin Yu), who double dates with girlfriend Simone (Mercedes Cabral). Humor punctuates the otherwise dreary situation the Bonifacios find themselves in, and like most Filipinos, despite everything, Gibson never forgets to smile.

But as this is a drama, Jamora reminds us that Gibson’s despair is everywhere. 

It is in his strained relationship with his mother, who remains a shadow of what she was, a life drained from her by her past. She looks at her son with a hint of blame, while he looks at her with longing, questioning. In the family, they are, in fact, most alike in a lot of ways. They both look at the world through lenses; they close their eyes when they listen to a song they like; and, they shut the world out when they lost someone they loved most. Both, too, haven’t been able to move ever since.

It is in Gibson’s attempts at a relationship with Enid. Could she possibly be with someone who doesn’t speak? The audience is led to believe that, yes, she just might bring happiness to Gibson. And she does. Their scenes made us relish the onset of love, that love truly conquers all, that it brings hope to those who don’t have any. But this is real life. Things aren’t just black and white. For Gibson, falling in love may simply be a form of escape. Enid, too, might be thinking the same thing. She has choices to make and these have nothing to do with sweet talk.

It is in Gibson’s relationship with Jamie. The most moving scenes in the film involve the brothers. They talk about everything around them. They smoke together. They are so comfortable with each other that we sometimes forget that one of them doesn’t exist, that one of them is dead. Yet, it is this desperate relationship that carries much of the film forward, making us eager to see them talk, interact, making us wish, at the back of our heads, that one had not left the other. We look for an assurance, perhaps a pat on the back, or a hug that doesn’t happen, and we are left hanging.

Intelligent Drama

This is what intelligent drama is all about. It isn’t about guys beating each other up or girls crying hysterically; the battle is, in fact, internal. Why does Gibson wear solid colors and shirts that hide his body, while the rest of the family chooses groovy bright outfits? Why does he choose to dress up as FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, from David Lynch’s TV series Twin Peaks, who prefers his coffee “black as midnight on a moon-less night”? When Gibson buttons his shirt to the choking top before he meets his family for dinner, and unbuttons it when he is alone, is it an act of self-defense, a protective impulse, or both?

Ang Nawawala is an excellent portrayal of how people choose to deal with life. It isn’t an exposé, or a social commentary, on the upper-middle-class lifestyle. Though we are provided with a voyeuristic view of this segment of society, the movie isn’t exploitative. What it says is that when we are well fed, when we are higher up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we become the cause of our own problems, not the milieu we live in.  

This is what sets this movie apart, its ability to crawl under your skin and stay with you long after the credits have ended. There is no enemy here. There is no real hero. What we don’t see, or in this case hear, onscreen, we end up feeling for ourselves. This is probably why Jamora stayed away from the emotional fireworks of a soap opera; she wants us to do the work ourselves and not put our minds in neutral. She wants us to notice tiny things like Mike de Leon’s movie poster for Kakabakaba Ka Ba?, which translates to Does Your Heart Beat Faster?, an ode to the Filipino’s penchant for worrying; or even the reason why the youngest daughter is named Promise, the family’s collective cry for things to become normal again, for happiness to come back.

But fireworks only happen when we come to terms with our past in order to live in our present — “Anywhere but here,” Gibson types on his keyboard, though the only real life we have is in the Here and Now — all else is a mix of memory and yearning, perception and fiction, escape and endless worry. Everything else can be found on our computers, in home movies that hark to a happier time before life happened, before the shit hit the fan. And, before we can be whole again, we have to be brave enough to sift through our emotions, leaving no stone unturned, scrutinizing everything that we’ve swept under our own imaginary rugs. That’s the only way we can get rid of what we don’t need, in order for us to release, let go and forgive.

Does Gibson realize all of this?

The question Jamora seems to ask is: Do we?

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