When the local mainstream film industry has specialized in churning out paint-by-numbers love stories, the release of a romance film that gets it right is a cause for celebration. Kung Paano Siya Nawala is about Lio (JM de Guzman), a young man who suffers from face blindness: he can’t recognize people beyond his immediate family by their faces. He has to hear them clearly or focus on distinguishing marks on their visages. His life gets complicated when he meets and eventually falls hard for Shana (Rhian Ramos), a carefree barista bent on turning a new leaf in life.
The beauty of this film is not really hinged on the novelty of its story – it’s a fairly standard boy-meets-girl, boy-learns-of-girl’s-not so pleasant-past, boy-gets-insecure, boy-asserts-masculinity-and-abruptly-repudiates girl, boy-realizes-he-has-lost-good-person-and-woos-girl-back narrative. It can even be accused of taking a page off of MPDG* films, where the brooding male lead character gets taught to embrace life’s adventures by a flighty and quirky girl.
(Still photo courtesy of Joel Ruiz)
The miracle in how Kung Paano Siya Nawala breaks free from being a run-of-the-mill romance film lies on the excellent handling of five significant elements of film: directing, performance, cinematography, editing, and music, as well as on its welcome take on gender politics in local romance films.
Director (and co-writer) Joel Ruiz understands that the best romance films rely a lot on establishing mood. By letting the film breathe and delight in minute details (e.g., on the bed facing each other as they wake up Lio tucks a stray clump of hair clear of Shana’s face, Shana covers her mouth with the tip of a blanket before saying “I love you” — morning breath is real!), Ruiz entices viewers to get into the groove of euphoric haze of young love. One standout scene is when Lio and Shana slow-dance in a bar while Up Dharma Down’s “Anino” plays and Lio suddenly sees Shana everywhere in the bar. While the music is set in the original tempo and the movement of the people around Lio and Shana (including the pseudo-Shanas) are shot at normal speed, the medium shot of the couple in embrace is slightly slowed down to heighten Lio’s initial confusion and eventual realization of how special Shana is to him at that time.
Shana is everyone in the bar. (Screengrab from Kung Paano Siya Nawala screener)
Ike Javellana’s lighting matches the film’s moods — bathing the scenes in sunshine during the lovey-dovey phase; in hues of red and orange in the surreal and, for such a face-blind person as Lio, overwhelming, bar scenes; and in cold blue during the pivotal fight/breakup scene. His shots and camera angles also obviously play a huge part in making the film gorgeous to look at.
Lawrence Ang, a previous YCC awardee for Salvage (2015), lends his signature playful, snappy yet fluid editing in putting together scenes and manages to lend them both weight and levity.
Lastly, acclaimed indie artist Armi Millare renders the perfect sonic atmosphere to the film, never overpowering it with music, respecting its silences. Millare and her band UDD are now considered OPM giants because of the honesty and intimacy of their lyrics coupled with their inventiveness in their compositions, and Millare brings that to the film.
The film playfully works around the theme of vision/visuality in cinema: what we see as viewers are what Lio sees, so even we have to second-guess the real identities of the various women he meets. The film can be read as a commentary on the sameness of the ideal modern female form, hairstyle and fashion. In global consumerism, everyone wants to look a standard and, in a way, we become face-blind until we get to know each individual by heart.
In the film, Shana rebukes Lio for using his condition as a crutch; when he lashes out at people and hurts them, he blames his “abnormality” instead of the real reason — his fragile masculinity. It’s heartening that a film written by two men and directed by a man can be critical about men and the bullshit that women go through in heterosexual relationships.
*manic pixie dream girl