Review: The Missing (Carl Joseph Papa)

“It takes a lot of skill to be able to make a film that is this wildly ambitious but also profoundly strange.”

Unpredictability in art is an underutilized tool, and one that rarely manifests itself as particularly effective, since we have all grown increasingly cynical about the suspension of disbelief necessary for some stories to have an impact. However, sometimes films come along that truly take us by surprise, although not always for the reason we may expect. There was not a single moment in The Missing (Tagalog: Iti Mapukpukaw) in which I could predict where the story was heading, which makes it one of the most unexpectedly odd films of the past year and one that may cause more confusion than inspiration, although perhaps this was an intentional choice that can easily be defended by noting that we have a simple premise that is interwoven with a lot of complex ideas. Written and directed by Carl Joseph Papa, the film tells the story of Eric, an ordinary young man living in an urban area somewhere in the Philippines, who begins to be plagued with feelings of paranoia and despair, especially after he discovers that his uncle has died. This event plunges him into the past as he revisits memories and comes to terms with his own identity, something that has been frequently questioned throughout his life. Throughout all of this he finds himself struggling to maintain his relationship with his loving mother, as well as developing a friendship with a colleague who has reciprocal feelings of romance, which only further confuses our young protagonist. Odd and disquieting in a way that can be difficult to understand, but still nothing short of fascinating, The Missing is a unique film that takes a bold approach to certain ideas, developing not only on its thematic content but on the very nature of filmmaking itself, the two existing in tandem throughout this work.

One of the fundamental questions asked about a lot of contemporary art, particularly during the present transition between postmodernism and the meta-modern era, is whether ambiguity is a worthwhile narrative device when placed in the hands of the right artist. It can either be the source of endless creativity, or simply a method to allow its creator to throw out as many wildly disparate ideas as they could muster into a single work without needing to tie up the loose ends. The Missing is a film to which this principle certainly does apply, although we aren’t ever entirely sure where it belongs on this spectrum of artistic ambiguity. There are many small details scattered throughout the film that help us make sense of some of these abstract ideas, but it is clear that Papa is not interested in providing too much explanation, and that he is trying to circumvent traditional narrative structure in a way that can sometimes be quite bewildering, and does not always make much sense in context. There is always something to stir our curiosity with this film, but the realization that we aren’t going to get any resolution of most of these ideas demonstrates precisely how The Missing is not intended to be a satisfying work, nor one that has a clear conclusion. It takes a lot of skill to be able to make a film that is this wildly ambitious but also profoundly strange, and Papa makes a strong case for his status as one of the more interesting young directors working today, whose vision is certainly captivating even if we don’t always fully understand what it represents.

The Missing uses the element of surprise as its most integral artistic tool, needing the audience to go into this film with no idea about what the story entails; otherwise it would be a relatively flaccid affair, and one that feels much longer than its conventional 90-minute running time. Even in this discussion, I’ve intentionally elided any reference to the main plot structure, both because it is simply too convoluted to summarize (since it goes in many different directions), and because it would take away from the experience of those who have not encountered it for themselves. Papa is someone who has reverence for more abstract styles of filmmaking, and throughout this film he leaps between genres, employing elements of psychological horror, apocalyptic science fiction, romantic comedy and family melodrama, combining them into a strange and unconventional project that defies categorization. This is perhaps something of a flaw, since the lack of a clear genre means that the film also loses out on those tonal and thematic components that help guide the story along. It presents itself as decidedly unconventional and sometimes even slightly unsettling, since it doesn’t quite manage to make sense of some of its more bizarre ideas. It isn’t enough to take on this material, the director needed to craft it into something memorable, since without these elements The Missing is a queer love story set amid a series of bizarre incidents which may be real or entirely fabricated as a result of the protagonist’s mental state. We never quite understand what the film represents outside of its fundamental message that anyone can acknowledge, but it does call into question whether or not a film such as this needs to provide us with more guidance, or if it should be content to just exist as a product of its peculiarities.

When it comes to dissecting a film like The Missing and trying to comprehend its layers of meaning, it helps to take a few steps back and focus momentarily on the form of the work more than just the message. For about a decade Papa has invested himself in the medium of animation, which takes us back to the very beginning of his career. He started as a journeyman animator who eventually leapt into making his own films, starting with shorts like The Princess, the Prince and Marlborita and Love Bites, and then eventually features like Manang Biring and now the present film. The Missing is a well-made film, although it probably won’t be universally appreciated, primarily because of the specific animation used. Despite being an acknowledged art form in itself, rotoscope animation has been derided for being either an inferior method of animation or one that is more easily created or cheaply produced – essentially, a director just needs to film his actors performing and then animate over them, which is the source of a substantial amount of tension within the animation community. The key difference between various films produced in this style comes down to how effective the use of the medium is – some films craft memorable stories that benefit from a style of animation that is steeped in reality but is just separate enough to feel detached from the real world (which is the reason why many of these films brilliantly make use of the uncanny valley theory), while others just do it for the sake of using the medium. The Missing is squarely in the middle – there are some moments where we can understand the use of rotoscoping, whereas others are not quite as successful. In either instance, it becomes clear that there is something much deeper to what Papa is doing with this film, and our desire to understand the meaning is not always reflected directly in the story but can become clear when we make sense of the animation itself. The Missing is an impenetrable film – I am not entirely sure how one is supposed to approach this film, or what its underlying message could be since the director makes neither particularly clear. However, it would be foolish to focus too much attention on these qualities as flaws, since there is something much deeper simmering beneath the surface, and a lot of what makes the film so intriguing comes from its ability to immerse us in this alternative version of reality, while asking us to surrender to the mood and simply walk through the world with these characters as our guides. It can be frustrating, and the lack of an explanation can cause substantial annoyance for even the most attentive of viewers. It does require some degree of critical thinking, and even with this in mind it can come across as aloof and very off-kilter, which is not a particularly welcome sensation, especially for a film designed to be intentionally obscure in tone and aim. The performances are strong, with Dolly De Leon (who has become one of the most exciting talents working today, a victory that comes quite late in her career but which is nevertheless very encouraging) and Gio Gahol, and also with Carlo Aquino having quite an unorthodox role to play as the film’s protagonist. The characterization may be slightly peculiar, and we don’t ever quite understand what this film is saying, but there is something intriguing being done throughout this story, and it draws us in and puts us under a hypnotic spell. It may not always make sense, and may indeed be extremely frustrating at times, but there is something truly remarkable about this film and what it represents, even if the journey to understanding these fundamental concepts takes slightly longer than we may have anticipated, but it is undeniably worth our time nonetheless.