When I wrote about Marie Jamora’s film Ang Nawawala in my low-key hokey column in this week’s paper, I thought it was to help them add press clutter right before its run in Cinemalaya started. Now, after having seen the film tonight, I find that it was an act of conceit more than anything else: I thought I knew exactly what this film was going to be about. It was going to be twee, two feet on cutesy, another Cera-bration, an attempt to return the favor to coming of age films that have wrinkled out our angst— the mastering of this genre, was in a way, to say that growing up had finally been overcome. I pigeonholed it as one of those ‘show and tell’ films that have a filmmaker’s chains all around it like a charm bracelet to be worn by a naive, unaware protagonist as his own— Tintin shirts and songs that, according to a magic slate, ‘you should know’. But, I was dead wrong.
You didn’t have to go past the lead character’s family, or better yet, the opening credits, to see how thick the Wes Anderson influences were slathered on, but also, of the West. A few days ago, I participated in a casual debate on the Rogue FB page about the ‘new breed’ of Philippine cinema, which had been frontlined by a link to the Ang Nawawala trailer. The seventy-comment thread left me typing, with Captain Obvious spirit fingers, that non-Western cinema has a right to the ‘universal themes’ to which American Suburbia has for so long rubbed its Kevin Spacey hands all over; we have all the right to do the same, under our terms and umbrellas, without a plastic bag floating in baha. Unfortunately for Marie this is a spot that popcorn critics will love to mull over, pick at, and spit out. We— bato bato sa langit, matamaan huwag magalit— tend to dismiss Western influences in other people’s works not only because it dilutes the message of ‘Philippine struggle’, but because unknowingly treat their successes as our shortcomings, and pass them off as their shortcomings. This is likely the parent sentiment of the words ‘feeling’, baduy’, ‘or of that grating commercial in the early-noughties: “walang ganyan sa States!” (although I don’t believe these apply to Ang Nawawala). This keeping up with the Jones’ could be why some people flinched at names like Deacon, Promise, or yes, Wes, or at the non-traditional protagonist who was well-off, quirky, and yes, slightly twee when we’ve never really used this level of twee before in local cinema (Well, Jolina aside). But it’s a homage, everyone, don’t stress, it’s only a homage. Besides, the Wes influence looks kind of great on Boboy Garovillo.
Now, onto one of the main characters: the music scene. My piece on Ang Nawawala failed because I attempted, quixotically, to give the back door view of a ‘scene’ that is in a way, a very important character of the film— and one that is largely unfamiliar to a lot of audiences*. The film pulls many people in with a love story but then, confuses some with ‘Talking via vinyl album titles from a shelf? And why doesn’t he want that Ultravox record? Teka, what is Ultravox?’ As a wallflower who had just gotten back from being a wallflower elsewhere for a long time, I was lucky enough to jump on and witness some of this “scene” (it’s not so much a scene but more of a ‘kebs hohol’) through degrees of separation and interest crossovers. This portable peephole made the Ang Nawawala experience so much fuller. But one tiny bar isn’t going to fit three sold-out screening’s worth of Marie’s film, and I suspect they might also want to know about the ‘Manila’ they’re seeing. You mean a parallel Manila? No, I prefer to put it this way: these are people who do not only know Juan de la Cruz bassist Mike Hanopol is polymath Lourd de Verya’s uncle, but they probably know Lourd de Veyra personally. They’ll sit across Saguijo at the Dig Radio stoop to take a breather, like when Enid sat there listening to her ex-boyfriend play Outerhope’s No End in Sight. They’ll try and run red lights to catch a particular song from a band they like, especially if it’s Shirley or Pedicab. They’ll wonder why Earl Ignacio took over the Saguijo bar in the film because they know the faces over everyone behind the bar. But I couldn’t do a full description or be a Victor Bockris for anyone— the local music scene is a complex character that won’t sweat for a noob like me. All I can say is Marie Jamora’s background in local independent music makes the band bonanza unsurprising to those who know it, but for a lot of people, would probably need more than just subtitles.
So now let’s move onto story. Gibson— the Rob Fleming, the William Miller, the guy from the Squid and the Whale who sang Pink Floyd’s Hey You— the main character whose dopey charm signals our awkward inner self that we can safely identify with him, is home for the holidays after three years of studying abroad. He hates coming home because his whole family has their panties in a twist ever since his twin died in an accident ten years ago. He hasn’t spoken since, but is your typical introvert and that you can’t help but wish him well. But in its trailer days, I found it hard to really digest the idea that someone, with the ability to do speak, would prefer to express his grief in muteness for ten years. It’s not very practical for say, maneuvering a tray of hot soup in a crowded place, falling into ditches, or in his case, falling in love. Yes, less than half an hour into us meeting him, Gibson falls in love with the wrong person, a woman of didactic, life-lesson breed. In the film we see him pine and fog up the frame with young love. Not long after, we seem his heart being used as a pick by her dweeby ex-boyfriend as he sang her a song to woo her back. If Gibson is our hero, he is a blip for Enid’s. I don’t know what the real Dominic Roco is like, but suddenly I get carried away by the idea that I could steer his decisions with my hindsight and pretend virtual reality, seeing situations where he’s left blinkered— like, no, but yeah, but no, but yeah. The perfect-timing acting (they seem to have had crying master classes, not quite Nora Aunorable yet but damn, these Roco twins) and really good smooth road of ‘leave it to us’ storytelling, which is surprisingly rare, which I find necessary in films like this, have been satisfying. And here I was, worried about being convinced he wouldn’t be able to handle balancing a tray of hot soup.
The more the story went along, the more it became clear: this film isn’t a knock-off of widely available but cult coming-of-age non-local films, like Almost Famous or Wet Hot American Summer. This was the local coming-of-age film that we had all been expecting as remnants of our younger selves as book nerds, headphone hiders, and wallflowers, without the yellow school buses or the lockers of a public American high school upbringing we never had. And it’s not to discredit other local films that have attempted to describe young life in fishing villages. A film like this gives the oft-shunned aircon artists a little bit more representation in Philippine cinema— a chance to find themselves in film in a world of pluralities, where not all of us are nasal-toned, pearly echusera matronas without souls. I mean, even Dawn Xulueta’s character used to be a record-loving, professional photographer before she turned into a Stepford bitch in vintage floral.
Regardless of whether a representation of a microbial young Manila is deserved, to finally see ourselves in a film, I think is what made the film so priceless for a lot of us**. The film is almost like assisted daydreaming, as though I’m in my backyard blindfolded, but so familiar with the space that my steps are assured. I would be lying to say that Ang Nawawala’s sap is and should stay fiction. It’s hard not to entertain the idea of turning around from the bar at Route 196 holding two up beers smiling smugly at the starting line of falling in love, or lying down on a record shop floor listening to a crackling record brushing wrists, or never needing to explain more than what you can write in a note, or watching someone air-guitar a song they dedicated to you, or shet, even asking for a number in a memorable lameness, or, tiny spoiler alert, breaking the silence for what seems like love. Gibson’s friend makes a good point, and I shamefully paraphrase: ”nung huling narinig ko ang boses mo, hindi pa nahulog ang bayag mo. Ngayon mo lang siyang nakilala at sa kanya ka pang unang nagsalita?” The reason why we love coming of age films and Adele’s 21 album (and secretly, Phil Collins’ Against All Odds on repeat), is not for the person who broke your heart. Things don’t work out and the best films won’t pretend it is. Films like this we watch over and over each time it happens to us, each time we remind ourselves how far we’ve gone, or what we are going through. Coming of age is constant, and because many of us have long pressed the snooze button to growing up. And this is why I’m confident that Marie Jamora’s film Ang Nawawala will be a lasting film for us, for our shelves, and, to end kind of cutesy: for ourselves.
Ang Nawawala is still showing. More information at cinemalaya.org
*Inquirer, unfortunately, nailed the coffin by changing my last line from ‘ I hope to at least have alerted you that the scene is in a way a character of a film’ to ‘… alerted you to the “scene” and to A character in the film’. Yes.
**Clarification: I wasn’t literally in the film. Actually I haven’t been able to go to these places much since the filming of Ang Nawawala, coincidentally. As my friend puts it, “while Gibson’s heart was breaking in Meiday, three of us got our phones stolen”. Since then I have tried harder at being a hermit than being a weekend head bobber.