The Missing

The Missing (Iti mapukpukaw) (2023)

The Missing (Iti mapukpukaw) screens at HÕFF – Haapsalu Horror and Fantasy Film Festival 

Young adult Eric (Carlo Aquino) is woken one morning by a call from his mother Rosalinda (Dolly de Leon). She is checking in on Eric and wants to make sure he gets to work on time, but she is also worried about her brother Rogelio (Joshua Cabiladas) whom Eric has not seen since childhood. Rogelio, who is no longer answering Rosalinda’s calls, will in fact turn out to have died of a heart attack alone in his bed – but the title of writer/director Carl Joseph E. Papa’s The Missing (Iti Mapukpukaw) refers to more than just this man now as absent from existence as from his nephew’s porous memory. For in this psychodrama, presented as a rotoscoped hyperreality to match both Eric’s profession as a digital animator and the distorted way that he envisages the world, not only is Eric mute, having to express himself through signing gestures, phone texts and a small whiteboard that he carries around his neck, but he is also drawn literally without a mouth – and as the film goes on, other parts of his (an ear, an eye, a hand, his genitalia) will go missing, visually codifying Eric’s mental disintegration.

The death of the barely remembered Rogelio and the reemergence of Rogelio’s daughter Precy (Christela Marquez) – who is now as mute and mouthless as Eric – trigger two things that only seem unrelated: a series of flashbacks (presented in a more naïve mode of animation, like a child’s drawings) to the times that Eric, aged nine when he was still able to speak (voiced by Jeremy F. Mendoza), spent with his uncle (whose appearance is blurrily effaced) and his young cousin (voiced as a child by Jeydah Cawed); and the return of a spaceship-borne alien to seize Eric once again for an ‘esh-perimental’, supposedly world-saving adventure that now fills him with terror. 

The Missing

As Eric works through this flood of invasive assaults, and as his purchase on reality becomes no less fluid than a cartoon’s, his work colleague and would-be boyfriend Carlo (Gio Gahal) decides that the best way he can help Eric is to go along with him for the delusional ride – and so in The Missing, as in Perry Blackshear’s They Look Like People (2015), the protagonist’s psychological descent must be shared (by a more grounded character and the viewer alike) if a point of intersection is to be found between reality and fancy where the vulnerable young man can finally disinter the truth and once again find the voice that has been silenced for so long.

Eric’s rebuilding of self runs in tandem with our reconstruction of the key event – the primal scene – that this fractured narrative is missing. Anyone who has seen Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin (2004) or Brad Abrahams’ documentary Love And Saucers (2017) will quickly grasp how Eric’s regular fugues into a nightmarish fantasy of alien abductions, tentacular probes and penile extra-terrestrials represent a way of processing unspeakable past trauma much closer to home. Papa traces the relapse of Eric’s damaged state, and his gradual, troubled journey back to wellness, with sensitivity and sympathy. It is a beautifully realised yet unnerving story of recurring memories and parallel timelines, where shame, guilt and fear from an abusive past still leave their haunting traces in the purer love of the present.

strap: Carl Joseph E. Papa’s alien abduction story uses its hyperreal animated form as the mysterious skin for unspeakable subtext

© Anton Bitel