Gibson (Dominic Roco), after ten years abroad, returns to Manila for the holidays. He still opts to not talk, a decision he made after seeing his twin brother die. He arrives to a house and a family that barely changed. His mom (Dawn Zulueta) still plays stern mother hen to Promise (Sabrina Man), his youngest sister. His father (Buboy Garovillo) still dons a mask of contentment. Corey (Jenny Jamora), his elder sister, is now in a relationship with a clueless blockhead (Marc Abaya) but remains to be the overstressed overseer of the seemingly normal family.
Teddy (Alchris Galura), Gibson's childhood friend, rescues him, introducing him to new friends, a possible romance, and a lifestyle that serves as respite from his family's torturous tedium. Along the way, Gibson finds his greatest diversion in Enid (Annicka Dolonius) and shares with her the stories of his life, his music, his inexperience in bed.
Marie Jamora and co-writer Ramon de Veyra has carefully conjured a coming-of-age tale that withdraws from the traditions of the genre. Instead of the raging hormones of burgeoning maturity or the delightful impulses of first love, Ang Nawawala (What Isn't There) maps the redemption of lost years spent making sense of a childhood trauma that resulted in the most enduring of heartaches.
The conceit of Gibson's decision to be quiet is admittedly farfetched but placed in a plot where the functions of communication are confused leading to a situation where people talk but nothing is truly understood, it transforms into an apt metaphor of the pervading theme that champions the universality of music, which plays a major role in the film, how music breaks barriers of language and location in transmitting messages that matter, and how it becomes the most potent drug for forgetting such scars from the past.
A part of the film is spent exploring the more meaningful margins of the current Philippine music scene. It features songs that are kept hidden and protected from the attention of the moneyed and usually empty mainstream. The film maneuvers the story of Gibson's eventual falling for Enid's unique charms along a myriad of melodies that explore the complexities of affairs of the heart, providing a distinct backdrop to the initial stirrings of a possible ecstasy.
Ang Nawawala is a love letter to a Manila that barely gets featured in film. It is specific on a certain demographic, the small percentage of the youth that gets high on a peculiar new music, also on everything pop and old, on infatuations that dangerously border on love. It locates itself in the various spots in the metro that attract the demographic, like the bars and concert venues that feature indie bands in their nightly gigs, or the rare vinyl stores, or the convenience stops and their cheap treats and time-wasters, or the all-night spas and their peculiar features. The film details these various diversions, from the hipster scene to the drugs and the various methodologies of taking, which shrouds the conflicts of the youth that feed on them.
Jamora's first feature is obviously crafted to incorporate the attributes that define the lifestyle it portrays. It is paced like a rock star, relaxed when it needs to be but quick at the edges. The visuals are absolutely lovely, revealing an angle of the city that is patterned, orderly, the absolute opposite of the maniacal chaos of the various slums and squatters' colonies that have been featured tirelessly in other films about Manila. The acting is mostly superb, with the performers tackling the entire spectrum of the multi-faceted demographic, from the overactive jerks that stalk the concert venues for a quick lay down to those authentically serious about the music with their eyelids shut to further increase the effect of the notes and lyrics.
In the end of it all, the film's detour to the world populated by hipsters and wannabes only exemplifies the fleeting nature of the somewhat effective departure that world provides. Everything begins at home. Naturally, everything should end there. The problems and dilemmas sparked by the lack of understanding and communication at home cannot be solved by escaping them. In the film's sublime final few moments, Gibson literally comes of age. He does what he's supposed to have done when his youth, adolescence and everything good and bad that came along with it were suspended over a debilitating heartbreak. He did not need the drugs, the fireworks, the first kisses, and other spectacles. All Gibson needed was to talk.
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