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The Missing – Queer East Film Festival 2024

David Cunningham

Writer and director: Carl Joseph Papa

Oscar Wilde euphemistically defined homosexuality as ‘the love that dare not speak its name.’ Writer and director Carl Joseph Papa applies this definition literally in his animated examination of the impact of trauma in The Missing: the protagonist does not have a mouth.

Not having a mouth may be the least of the problems faced by Eric (Carlo Aquino). He works as an animator in the Philippines and his workmate Carlo (Gio Gahol) is giving signals he is interested in being more than a friend- a development Eric’s mother Rosalinda (Dolly de Leon) is encouraging. Rosalinda asks Eric to check on his uncle who has fallen out of touch. On reaching his uncle’s home Eric discovers a dead and decomposing body. Before he can react, Eric is kidnapped by a flying saucer captained by an alien who demands he keep a promise he has tried to forget.

It is safe to conclude Eric’s lack of a mouth is used by writer and director Carl Joseph Papa as a visual way of demonstrating the character’s inability to confront and talk about a past trauma. Although it is not shown, Eric obviously has a functioning mouth as his untidy apartment is cluttered with empty food containers and he carries snacks in his backpack, and no-one remarks on the absence of a mouth. As he cannot bring himself to speak Eric communicates by gestures and writing on a whiteboard hung around his neck, which has the punitive effect of drawing attention to his inability -he is crudely referred to by gossips as mute. At a later point in the film Eric encounters another trauma victim and he alone can see she too has no mouth.

The visual metaphor continues, as Eric succumbs to pressure, and his life begins to unravel he believes other body parts are vanishing although this is not apparent to other people. In what may be the only joke in the film Eric sees his penis wriggle free and leave.

The Missing is a technological triumph, filmed in rotoscope – an animation technique involving tracing over motion picture footage, frame by frame, to produce realistic action. Reportedly the filmed parts of the film were completed in days but the rotoscoping took a year and a half and the effect is stunning- completely convincing 3D animation. However, younger audiences, accustomed to more exaggerated styles of animation, may find the sophisticated rotoscoping unappealing, which is a shame as such an age group would benefit most from the film’s message about the importance of speaking out.

The full impact of the rotoscope technique is emphasised by comparison with flashback scenes to Eric’s childhood. These are filmed in rough, sketchy cartoon style as if drawn by a child using crayons. One might take this as an indication Eric’s maturation has been impeded by the trauma he endured, and it is notable the face of his abuser is scribbled out.

The Missing is, however, a triumph of technique over storytelling. Once the audience has deduced Eric is coping with past trauma the film becomes a static process of working towards the point where he resolves his problems. There is very little tension or conflict, Eric’s friend Carlo shows an almost saint-like level of understanding and tolerance.

The missing body parts and the involvement of aliens are visually interesting but seem like ways of padding out, by adding a degree of obscurity, a storyline which at heart is straightforward with an outcome that is easy to predict.

Excellent animation holds the attention of the audience better than the thin plot of The Missing.

Queer East Festival 2024 takes place 17 – 28 April across venues in London.

The Reviews Hub Score

Sharp animation but thin plot

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