Unfamiliar Absence

'Ang Nawawala' tells a small story and lets it grow into something wonderful.

There are many ways one could describe Ang Nawawala. It is a coming-of-age film, featuring a young protagonist being thrust into adulthood by accepting the things that have kept him from moving on. It is a movie about a dysfunctional family, one torn apart by a particular event in the past. It is also a love story, the film dancing through all the touchpoints of what is unmistakably a first romance. But all of these descriptions put together don’t quite do justice to what the movie actually is and what it accomplishes. The film takes these familiar experiences and filters them through unfamiliar absences, finding its heart in all the things that have yet to be said.

Gibson Bonifacio (Dominic Roco) stopped speaking when he was a child. He witnessed something terrible, and decided that he had nothing left to say. After years of living abroad, he returns home for Christmas to a family that’s silently breaking apart. But rather than deal with all that, he chooses to avoid the dysfunction by escaping into a chance romance with a girl named Enid (Annicka Dolonius). Gibson’s growing relationship with the mercurial Enid forces him to come out of his shell, and leads him to confront the trauma of his youth.

The film thrives on this particular truth: that silence can often mean more than words. A family can suffer in silence, projecting the image of health and prosperity while bearing the weight of trauma and betrayal within. In the same way, a romance can be as much about what is unspoken, about the intangible connections that exist within people. The movie is defined by its absences, by the space that the characters try to fill with music and romance and hobbies and doting and whatever else they can hold on to. It is terribly difficult thing to dramatize, but the film often pulls it off rather beautifully, saying more in subdued silence than most movies do with scads of dramatic dialogue.

Not every scene works: the film’s paper-thin antagonist oversimplifies the romantic conflict, and some of the quirkier bits of dialogue fall flat. But for the most part, the movie capably keeps it together. Much of the credit goes to Marie Jamora’s crackling direction. A lot of thought clearly went into the shooting of the film, every shot carefully composed to serve the narrative, holding on to a very delicate, melancholic tone. A wonderful musical score enhances the scenes even further. When all these elements come together, the film can be astoundingly beautiful.

Much of this movie hinges on Dominic Roco’s performance, and fortunately enough, he’s pretty great. It can’t be easy to play a mostly silent character, but Roco makes it feel effortless, his expressive eyes quietly bringing the character’s angst to the fore. Even without speaking, it’s easy enough to recognize where the character is coming from. But it is Dawn Zulueta’s silence that is most arresting in this picture. She wears the history of her character on her face, making it apparent in every single scene just how much she’s holding in. It’s a stunning performance. This is a great cast overall, but it benefits greatly from two of the smaller roles in particular. Alcris Galura plays comic relief for most of the picture, but performs admirably in what might be the most important scene in the movie. And Jenny Jamora brings plenty of truth to her little role.

Ang Nawawala tells a small story and lets it grow into something wonderful. It is a movie made up of the small moments that mean so much, the pregnant pauses and meaningful silences that fill up so much of our lives. It is all strangely unfamiliar. Cinema tends to favor confession and confrontation, where all the crying and screaming can happen. Ang Nawawala takes place after all that is done, and people are just trying to cope. It pulls this off with style to spare, pointing at a world full of strange wonder, good music, and loves yet to be found.

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