Searched For, But Not Missing

Ang Nawawala [What Isn’t There]
Directed by Marie Jamora
Written by Marie Jamora and Ramon de Veyra

After over a decade of existence, the Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival has garnered its share of controversies, many of them centered on differences between officials and practitioners, often proving beneficial to both sides because of the publicity that inevitably attends such spectacles. Lost in the shuffle would be an increasing number of titles that deserve as much (if not more) attention, but that get shunted aside because of jurors’ preferences and the festival audience’s tendency to take their cue from media mileage. Among the titles I had the good fortune to stumble across, I remember Arah Jell Badayos and Margaret Guzman’s Mudraks [Mom] (2006) and Vic Acedillo’s Ang Nerseri [The Nursery] (2009), well-observed modest films whose central performances by established actresses (Rio Locsin and Jaclyn Jose respectively) apparently could not lift them out of the cycle that regularly smothers the entries that do not generate their own hype. Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil’s Boses [Voices] (2008) was a special case – an entry locked out by the jury but that proved so popular among audiences that it became, via a series of still-continuing special screenings, the festival’s highest income-generating production.

Marie Jamora’s Ang Nawawala (2012) possesses its own special package of scandal. It was denounced during the festival period by organized critics from academe (overlapping categories, in the case of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication and the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino or Filipino Film Critics Circle). Rolando Tolentino, the then-concurrent UPCMC dean and MPP chair, published a review in Filipino whose title described the film as “Burgis na Juvenalia” or bourgeois juvenalia (see screen capture) – a serendipitous error when we realize that juvenalia is not the same as juvenility (the reviewer’s likely intended word), but rather that it refers to the celebration of Juvenal, the Roman poet and satirist. Moreover, in a separate article (excerpted in my entry, Fallout to “A Lover’s Polemic”), Tolentino recounted the dissenters to his review by way of downgrading “film bloggers” as presumably inferior to critics like him and his fellow MPP members.

Burgis na Juvenalia

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While I take care to avoid responding to specific reviews, and regard Amauteurish! as primarily an archival blogsite, my recent viewing of Ang Nawawala convinced me to make an exception to my personal policy of watching a film at least twice, with at least one theatrical screening, in order to provide some (admittedly limited) critical intervention. Tolentino’s review mistakenly opens by stating that the film has “Walang self-reflexive [sic] gesture o take sa pagiging mayaman at pribilehiyado” [no reflexive gesture or take on being rich and privileged]. One would wonder what movie the reviewer managed to watch, when the entire narrative of Ang Nawawala, anchored on a main character who refuses to speak, turns on reflexivity at every opportunity. The reviewer worries that he might be mistaken for “minamaliit ang ganitong uri” [demeaning the members of the (wealthy) class] – quite disingenuous considering the circumstances of the MPP members’ pelf and power; and begins his conclusion by saying that “May ipinapanganak na problematiko ang ganitong pagtahak ng buhay ng maykaya, lalo pa bilang binary oposisyon sa pangkalahatang tema ng indie cinema, ang abang uri” [this treatment of the life of the wealthy gives rise to a problematic, especially in the form of a binary opposition with the general theme of indie cinema, which is the poor class].

Not surprisingly, Tolentino disapproves of the warm Cinemalaya audience reception to Jamora’s film, since he insists on his preconceived notion that “indie cinema” should preoccupy itself with the poor, and imposes this bias in literal terms – i.e., once a filmmaker turns her attention to the higher-than-poor classes, then she has wound up betraying his cherished Cinemalaya ideal. The implication of Tolentino’s premise is astounding in its vulgarity, not only because of its (vulgar-)Marxist origin, but also because it winds up dismissing the vast bulk of global art and literature, if we were to regard only material about “the poor class” (let alone the question of whether these were produced by the same class) as worthy of serious consideration.

Fortunately, Ang Nawawala stands a good chance of outliving such prescriptive guilt-by-association. It invokes the haunting of history by allowing a specter from the main character’s past, in the form of his long-dead twin brother, to engage him in debate regarding his recent actuations, including his decision to remain mute to everybody else; the living brother finally manages to score his own point by telling the ghost (or memory) that if he had been alive, he might have turned out gay – a rather weak riposte, considering how queerness has no longer become the devastating insult it had once been. By this means the brothers maintain a comic-melancholy balance between affection and regret, complicated by their awareness that their mother would have preferred the dead brother to survive.

The fact that the brothers are played by real-life twins adds resonance to the performances, with Jamora providing Dominic Roco (as the survivor) with a distinctive opportunity to play out his man-boy vibe, reminiscent of (and for me, preferable to) the persona that Aga Muhlach once purveyed. Their mother, who wreaks inadvertent cruelty in her performance of heartbreak, is essayed with a surprisingly fragile expertise by Dawn Zulueta; her resolution, one of several in the film, brings the proceedings to a head and rewards the curious viewer with an emotional satisfaction rare in familial depictions in indie cinema.

The aforementioned series of resolutions would be regarded in proper narrative classes as a weakness, but then each succeeding one manages to build up on what had preceded it, and Jamora would not be the first potentially major filmmaker who didn’t know, or maybe didn’t care, how to effectively end a genuinely fruitful journey. In fact one of the biggest lessons that could be drawn from the work of possibly the best local director, Ishmael Bernal, lies precisely in this direction: that once you have taken your audience on a trip that they never had before, you may be excused for worrying less about how the trip should end. (When I accidentally found out that Jamora had been mentored by Marilou Diaz-Abaya, a lot of her aesthetic choices suddenly invoked an unbearable nostalgia, as well as a solid logic: Diaz-Abaya herself had been mentored by Bernal.)

Ang Nawawala should have been recognized as the best debut film by a Pinay filmmaker (with the best pop-music soundtrack of all time as bonus), possibly exceeding even Laurice Guillen’s Kasal? [Wedding?] (1980), and it doesn’t detract from its achievement when we acknowledge that Hannah Espia’s even more impressive Transit arrived the year after, in 2013, along with Sigrid Andrea Bernardo’s Ang Huling Cha-Cha ni Anita [Anita’s Last Cha-Cha]. With the only successful contemporary film studio, Star Cinema, already dominated by women directors, we may just be witnessing the indie scene starting to mimic one of the mainstream trends worth emulating.

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About Joel David

Teacher, scholar, & gadfly of film, media, & culture. [Photo of Kiehl courtesy of Danny Y. & Vanny P.] View all posts by Joel David

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