Saturday, February 16, 2013

ANG NAWAWALA (Marie Jamora, 2012)

I spent my youth obsessing about music -- seeking out films like this, films whose soundtracks might appeal to me, not merely as accompaniment and background to enhance, or embellish, the dramatic proceedings onscreen, but rather, as splendid and cherished music on their own, waiting to be abstracted, identified, and acquired for my own listening pleasure. Foundational films are all but synonymous with John Hughes and include such classics as Some Kind of Wonderful, Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, and Ferris Bueller Day Off -- superlative examples whose sound design transcended their cinematic purpose and became personal and popular soundtracks for an entire generation. Active in the 80s and early 90s, Hughes pioneered this innovative kind of incidental music, culling from the pop and rock music of the era -- often British New Wave, sometimes Australian, sometimes continental Europe, sometimes North American -- rather than commissioning the work of professional film scorers. (No accident that most of the titles enumerated above form part of Hughes filmography.)

During those simpler and admittedly more naive times, films made the grade if they included cameo performances by beloved bands, if a favorite tune or some excellent new discovery would only play in the background. In many instances, a song was the mnemonic to remember any movie by. Times, however, change. Years later that kind of music fell into decline and it closed that chapter of my life. Besides, films of that persuasion, most often of the so-called high school subgenre, were also coterminous with that era. Now everything is a memory, a corollary of my younger, more innocent, more ignorant days. Today cinematic cameos and walk-ons of musicians, more often than not, strike me like so much product placement.

What of more recent retrospective movies, say, those throwbacks to the postpunk era and their music-related thematics like 24 Hour Party People or Control, you may ask? Did I not succumb to the tempting evocation of Manchester's independent scene circa 1980s, and savor, in particular, the recreation of concerts of Factory label bands at the legendary Hacienda? Did I not lap up the brief life of Ian Curtis, the briefer life of Joy Division, the timbre of this suicide's tortured vocals and his spastic dance moves? Admittedly, I did, on all counts, with wide-eyed nostalgia to boot. Admittedly, when cleansing the retina of challenging films, I allow myself the soft touch of such films. Admittedly, too, my jaundiced presumptions of their lack of worth have been time and again proven wrong, as demonstrated above. So with the push and pull of mixed feelings, I went to watch Marie Jamora’s Ang Nawawala, partly with a knee-jerk jadedness, but partly with something akin to an adolescent’s exuberance. Ang Nawawala, after all, promised to fill the bill. The spotlight was on a kind of music after my heart, indie pop, that little known variety of pop with a small, specialized following.

To my dismay, nothing clicked. Nothing registered with me. Alas, there were no anthems worth latching onto, at least not to my fairly cultivated ear for music. Many of the indie pop allusions were not lost on me, but there were moments of vague disconnect: was it the film's glaring formulism, was it the distancing and warping effect of age and my past musical allegiances, is today's indiepop not my thing despite my profession of affinity? Turning into an unwilling eavesdropper, I had to suffer through the uninteresting non-story, mostly a pretext for shooting band performances and the indie pop lifestyle that I initially thought to be cinematic. Wrong. For some reason, it cut no ice with me. Not even the slew of cameos -- from Pedicab to Outerhope -- came close to home. My affections for films with a musical leitmotif turned limp and lifeless.

Ten years reportedly went into the preparation and gestation of Jamora's film debut, but what comes across is mere surface luster: a spankingly crisp and fluid cinematography that takes in everything from band sound checks and gigs to a fine array of indie pop paraphernalia and status symbols: Tintin t-shirts, Hello Kitty headphones, Korg synthesizers, a Japanese vinyl pressing of Depeche Mode’s Black Celebration, and stacks of mostly New Wave vinyl records -- all calculated to jack up the hipster index. But what was put on the back burner was, unfortunately, the single most important ingredient: the blueprint for a plausible, well-written screenplay. Ang Nawawala's story proves paper-thin, its focus on music, concerts and records, nothing novel, its central character, a self-imposed mute, is improbable. Compare and contrast that with, say, Stephen Frears' High Fidelity. For one, Frears' film concerns relatively more identifiable and more believable characters. Moreover, much of the musical aces up its sleeve, now well-known tropes, were unique to it and newly minted when the movie first appeared, mainly thanks to Nick Hornby's novel. Maybe High Fidelity was the apex of its kind, after which everything went downhill and derivative: the proto-film about mix tapes, vinyl records, and musical coolness and triumphalism.

At some point even Frears' movie started to sag on me, as soon as its mechanisms became apparent on subsequent viewings. Ang Nawawala doesn't fare better, formulated with a much-used Hollywood template -- i.e. boy and girl meet cute, boy goes steady with girl, boy loses girl -- and worse, it tries to be a bricolage of two movies, the first one being the above-mentioned courtship between boy and girl, a lot of which happens at indie pop concerts-cum-karaoke-sessions, and the second one involves the nominal theme of filial estrangement, a negligible Oedipal conflict of sorts, tacked on at the eleventh hour to save the whole project.

Much of Ang Nawawala seems simply too precious to be comprehended. By the time it begins, our hero has held himself incommunicado for the duration of a decade, and for reasons, it would turn out, that seem to be non-issues. However, he obliges to communicate through all sorts of gadgets and electronics, too. Where is the integrity here for that prisoner of a long-lingering shock? It all seems at cross-purposes, but there may be an explanation: it does, after all, conform to a certain brand of indie pop ethos. Consider how most indie pop sub-genres such as chamber pop, twee, guitar pop, sophisti pop, jangle, c86, and bedroom pop, for instance, mirror a kind of aesthetics that is more pop-slanted than rock-oriented, more self-conscious than self-assured. Consider the mannerisms of these sub-genres and they may well hint at the mellow and subdued sensibilities of the average indie pop listener, including our hero, a melancholy softie who can't and seemingly won't outgrow his traumas. When the great reveal of his hurts happens, it predictably proves underwhelming, and we wonder if it is intended as a reproach to the indie pop fan's putatively suspect constitution, or as a larger, more encompassing critique of middle class vulnerabilities.

Amid the growing welter of poverty films circulating at all the domestic festivals -- those grimly serious films tackling widespread and legitimate social problems in earnest -- Ang Nawawala sticks out like a sore thumb, a whimsical work by comparison that foregrounds affluence, privilege and the ridiculous problematics of a young man rendered perpetually mute by his mother's casual slip of tongue. Frankly, much, much better conceptualized statements can be made about the bourgeoisie than this. To be sure, Ang Nawawala excels in terms of photographic polish and irreproachable production values but there is a gaping chasm at its narrative and ideological center. A flashback towards the end weakly explicates the source of our hero's protracted silence: his trauma stems from an overly precocious realization, at the age of 10, of his mother's secondary regard for him vis-a-vis his twin brother, the favorite, who dies suddenly and leaves a void in his mother's life. The felt hurt of neglect, of not being the fair-haired son, may sting but is it supposed to linger? Mountain, or, rather, molehill? Or has it all been in the agenda: has writer-director Jamora endeavored to show that such a hypersensitivity defines the upper crust our hero represents -- that the bourgeois are made of such feeble and fragile stuff? Possible, but doubtful: there is no tangible ideological slant within the film. And when the music fails in the final reckoning, a music that serves as an aphrodisiac for its two blossoming lovers, but shows, in the end, the tenuousness of its talismanic power -- let's just say, the girl proves promiscuously phonocentric while our hero remains silent and tight-lipped -- Ang Nawawala has become a matter of sheer indifference.   
Title in English: What Is Not There

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