The Missing (Ilocano: Iti Mapukpukaw) patiently weaves through the complexities of a person’s fragmented memory, and how their coping mechanisms become less and less effective as repressed memories resurface — vignette by vignette. In this thought-provoking animated film, director Carl Joseph Papa delicately crafts a narrative that reveals the depths and hidden layers of trauma, and the power of confronting one's past.
Eric (Carlo Aquino) is a young man who works as an animator and lives alone in a flat, who has a distinctive feature: he doesn’t have a mouth — something people around him just accept and dismiss. After all, they view him as a loner with poor social skills, whose only means of communication is using a sharpie and a whiteboard that he wears like a necklace. Eric’s only connections in his everyday life are his mother Rosalinda (Dolly de Leon), who frequently talks to him through video calls; and Carlo (Gio Gahol), a colleague whom he likes and who genuinely reciprocates Eric’s interest.
One day, Rosalinda calls Eric and asks him to accompany her to the location of Eric’s uncle, whom Rosalinda hasn’t heard from in days. Upon discovering that his uncle died, an alien creature from Eric’s childhood returns, wishing to whisk the young man away from Earth. These events drive Eric to grapple with his history and piece together his memories.
Director Papa once stated that watching Richard Linklater’s Waking Life left a lasting impact on him. He saw how such an approach can push the boundaries of what animation could do and within the first few minutes audiences immediately realise why rotoscope animation makes sense in The Missing.
Papa worked closely with the animators of this film when shooting the live-action parts ahead of rotoscoping. For the filmmaker, using the technique was a clear, conscious choice to evoke a sense of confusion. They parallels Eric’s deteriorating mental state, while also inviting the audience to question whether things are real or not.
While the title begs questioning, Papa’s storytelling and direction slowly but surely clue the audiences in. The alien abduction he endures, and the subsequent consequences from it, force Eric to confront his past and the trauma that goes with it. The Missing tries to balance a tightrope act with time and memory, traversing through Eric’s past and present. And frankly speaking, this is the film’s weakest aspect. Thankfully, by the third act, the film succeeds in tying up any loose ends without sacrificing the cathartic moments.
At its heart, though, The Missing sheds light on the unspeakable effects of trauma and grief. But more importantly, it underscores the vital role a healthy dose of support system can play in helping someone to navigate their journey toward vanquishing their personal monsters (or aliens, for that matter). In the film, Rosalinda and Carlo never waver in supporting Eric, even if they couldn’t understand him. Kudos go to theatre veterans Gahol and de Leon, who breathe life into Papa’s screenplay with their nuanced performances.
Papa’s ace in the hole here, however, is Aquino. Turning in an effective performance without saying a word—in a rotoscope animated film, no less—is a tall order. But with decades of experience in Philippine cinema under his belt, Aquino gives life to Eric using only his eyes. By the time Eric confronts his reality with his lack of speech, cue the waterworks.
With its compelling narrative, exceptional performances, and a deeply resonant message, The Missing reminds audiences that even in the darkest corners of one’s past, healing and growth can serve as the glimmer of light that can illuminate the path forward.
The Missing has garnered a number of firsts for Philippine cinema, such as being the first full-length animation to compete in the Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival; and the first animated film to be submitted by the Philippines for the Best International Feature Film at the 96th Academy Awards. Given this paucity of feature-length animated films on the local scene it may not be saying much, but this is probably the best animated film I've ever seen in Philippine cinema.
This movie and the filmmaking behind it, speaks volumes to the potential of adult animated storytelling in the country, more so when there are a million more Philippine stories waiting to be told. And if The Missing is any indication, it’s safe to say that things look promising for Philippine cinema.