If you’ve heard anything about this year’s Cinemalaya top-grosser and Audience Choice winner Iti Mapukpukaw (The Missing), it’s probably that it’s the first-ever full-length animated film in Cinemalaya’s 19-year history. You may have heard, too, that it features an animation style called "rotoscoping" that is seldom used in Filipino films, in which animators trace or illustrate over live-action footage, frame by frame, in order to create lifelike characters who move just like people in the real world.
The movie itself does not reveal the why for its visual design as quickly. Nor for why its lead character, a twentysomething Ilocano named Eric who works as an animator in Makati, has no mouth and communicates not by sign language but by writing on a small whiteboard that hangs from his neck all the time.
This is not your usual kid-oriented animated fare. The film’s writer-director, Carl Joseph Papa, does not do that kind—at least he hasn’t yet. His previous films, also animation, were stories of much older adults dealing with very adult problems: Paglisan (The Leaving), from 2018, is about the crumbling marriage of a middle-aged couple as they struggle individually with early onset Alzheimer's disease and with depression, while 2015’s Manang Biring is about a feisty terminally ill old lady whose peaceful resignation to her imminent death gets jolted with news that her daughter and apo are visiting her for Christmas.
Yes, Iti Mapukpukaw does sound like child’s play compared to these earlier films, and it does contain flashback scenes illustrated in a more stereotypical 2D animation style to Eric’s childhood where he plays with toys and there are fantasy scenes with aliens set in an alien spaceship. But the film’s themes of childhood sexual abuse and trauma are as dark and heavy.
“The story deals with really sensitive and dark issues we face today, and we had to retain the sincerity in everything we do,” Papa told PhilSTAR L!fe in an exclusive interview, adding that it’s based on personal stories alongside research and interviews. “We want to deliver the message of the story with much understanding, sincerity, and love.”
Achievement more than unlocked. Iti Mapukpukaw is a mini-masterpiece not just of Filipino animation but of Philippine cinema in which the story informs style and style adds substance. The “missing” in the title refers to the various body parts that go missing from Eric at various points in the film as a metaphor for the things that his trauma has robbed him of since childhood—an eye for vision, his manhood for intimacy, his mouth for voice.
Sure, it’s all quite literal—too on the nose, so to speak—but even that is firmly rooted in the film’s world as a children’s story for adults. And it’s all presented with a deft hand by Papa, his over 90 animators, and his cast: a soulful Carlo Aquino as Eric, a wonderful Dolly de Leon as Eric’s loving, with-it mom, and a superb Gio Gahol as Eric’s special friend.
“I hope that the viewers become more aware that it’s not just a singular story—the story of Eric happens everywhere. I hope that the conversations initiated after watching the film will bring forth understanding and empathy,” Papa said.
Beautiful, intelligent, moving, haunting, and fascinating, Iti Mapukpukaw is not to be missed.
The Cinemalaya Film Festival is ongoing until Sunday, Aug. 13. It closes with Dwein Baltazar’s Third World Romance: Love on a Budget on the same day.