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The Missing (2023) [Iti mapukpukaw]

One of the really cool things about animation festivals- or film festivals in general, is the opportunity to see films from countries that you don't often see films from. It gives you a real window into countries and cultures that are not seen on screen so often. The Missing hails from the Phillippines, which it's fair to say is not one of the world's best known animation industries. The film was selected for the Philippines' official entry in the Best International Feature Film at the 9th Oscars, although it didn't make the final shortlist. The film's British premiere took place at the Queer East Festival, which celebrates LGBTQ+ cinema from East Asia.

The Missing is written and directed by Carl Joseph Papa. It features the voices and performances of Carlo Aquino, Dolly de Leon, Gio Gahol, Christela Marquez and more. The film was the winner of two awards, for Best Film and Main Competition at Cinemalaya Festival, where it was the first animated feature to be selected. The animation is produced by Project 8 Projects.

The story features Eric, who works as an animator. He has a job he likes, and a crush on a male coworker (who seems to like him too) but his life isn't quite all flowers and sunshine. Eric literally has no mouth and has memories of being pursued by an alien. When his mum asks him to check on his uncle, only to find him dead, Eric begins to unravel as the alien reappears and other parts of his body begin to fall off.

As the synopsis might indicate, The Missing is a pretty out-there film. It has a very bizarre premise, but the way it's actually presented in the film is so matter-of-fact that it actually ends up feeling sort of natural. It seems likely that it's actually intended to be taken as a metaphor rather than literally. People treat Eric like a mute- nobody ever refers to the fact that he is mouthless, when you would think that's the kind of thing you might mention. It would also explain how he can survive without eating and drinking. And if Eric's affliction is a metaphor, then the alien is likely one too (probably representing his repressed childhood memories).

The film's surreal tone allows it to smuggle in some pretty serious subject matter. It touches on suicide and child abuse as well as themes of depression and repression. Luckily, it doesn't feel overly gloomy- and the blossoming romance between Eric and coworker Carlo probably helps lighten things up. The scenes where they get to know each other could come right out of a romcom.

The Missing is produced in digital rotoscoping, with the animation produced over live-action footage. It makes for very smooth and naturalistic animation. It's not quite up to the standard of something like Undone or Apollo 10 1/2, but it's very impressive for a (presumably) lower budget production.

The film employs a second style of animation. It occasionally features a flashback, which are produced in a scrappy child-like (digital) 2D animation style.

The LGBTQ+ themes are fairly subtle (you could mistake it for simple platonic friendship, up to a point) but are ultimately an important aspect of the film. When representation in animation is something that needs to be fought for even in the "enlightened West", seeing it represented in a Filipino film is something that should be applauded.

The Missing is ultimately a really quite odd film. But once you've got over the strangeness of the premise, it's also a pretty captivating one. It's impressive work to get you to sympathise with a character with no mouth, but that's what Carl Joseph Papa has managed to do. Based on his work here, Papa is definitely going to be a name to look out for in future,



Pretty bonkers but never less than watchable, The Missing is a hell of a trip