Filipino movies

‘Iti Mapukpukaw’ review: A staggering achievement in local animation, storytelling

Ryan Oquiza

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

‘Iti Mapukpukaw’ review: A staggering achievement in local animation, storytelling
‘Iti Mapukpukaw’ employs rotoscope animation to delve into its weighty subject matter, adopting a child's perspective to facilitate a nuanced exploration of grief, identity, and trauma

This is a spoiler-free review.

MANILA, Philippines – One thing that jumps to mind when thinking about Carl Joseph Papa’s animated adult drama Iti Mapukpukaw (The Missing) is its staggering achievement in animation. The formidable task of assembling a rotoscoping team with just Philippine and Thai grants, coupled with the challenge of establishing a cohesive, fully-realized world and visual language, stands as a remarkable feat in the context of local filmmaking. 

Let’s call it what it is: a coup. A defiance against the binaries of big-budget filmmaking and the limitations of third world filmmaking. Iti Mapukpukaw is a typical production story that has long defined the Philippine filmmaking landscape. Artists churning out quality with measly budgets and setting up practical workflows in spite of impractical setups. It’s essentially a director casting a creative beacon skyward to pluck talent from various backgrounds, whether it be burgeoning animators, seasoned background artists, regional rotoscopers, or even working college students.

Across the archipelago, artists collide and unify in a singular vision, exuding reverence for the drawings of our childhood, the graphic designs meticulously crafted in Photoshop, and the science fiction tales that have been sources of solace.​ Iti Mapukpukaw employs rotoscope animation to delve into its weighty subject matter, adopting a child’s perspective to facilitate a nuanced exploration of grief, identity, and trauma. It is not only creatively rich, but brimming with emotional depth and heartfelt poise.

The Filipino-Ilocano animated film tracks Eric’s (Carlo Aquino) life as it begins to take unexpected turns with the arrival of a haunting alien that gradually takes away his body parts, coinciding with the death of his uncle. These crucial moments become catalysts, propelling Eric on a journey into his past to disentangle the heartbreaking threads of his memories. 

Portrayed by Dolly de Leon, Rosalinda, Eric’s mother, emanates a caring and supportive presence, gently navigating her son’s emotional terrain without pushing too far. During his moments of vulnerability, she intervenes with understanding and warmth, a knowing grace that is emboldened by De Leon’s understated bravura. Gio Gahol assumes the role of Carlo, a fellow animator who develops an affinity for Eric. Gahol effortlessly radiates dynamism, with the substantial aspect of the performance residing in the unverbalized thoughts and emotions expressed in his interactions with Eric.

The brilliance of Carlo Aquino also cannot be overlooked since his performance relies heavily on physical expression as he remains without a mouth for a considerable duration of the film. Aquino, amidst the successes of Love You Long Time and Third World Romance, shines with what I perceive to be his best performance of the year—a portrayal permeated with both melancholy and distinct personality. Shot in just four days and rotoscoped for more than eight months, the film is a triumphant fusion of technical prowess and imaginative performance.

In terms of content, the film is purportedly a manifestation of Papa’s personal history, a canvas with which he uses to paint heroes, villains, and otherworldly scenarios—a creative avenue for coping. Papa extracts meaning from both the articulated and the unarticulated, the seen and the unseen. Subtlety stands out as the film’s forte, carefully treading sensitive topics while also recognizing the deafening silence associated with the remnants of abuse and undisclosed secrets.

Absurdist elements emerge not merely to shift genres but to imbue additional layers of meaning. The introduction of an alien rocket ship serves not only as a vehicle for Eric to navigate his emotions but also as a poignant reminder of a tumultuous past, one marked by a lack of control. While the film’s transition between flashbacks and present-day events may feel a bit disjointed at times, it undeniably propels the narrative in a three-dimensional manner. The film remains firmly rooted, never losing sight of its most potent aspect: the heart and soul embedded in Eric’s journey to reclaim agency and undergo a therapeutic process of rediscovering his voice.

Diverse animation styles contribute to the wonderfully designed aesthetic of Eric’s world. Childlike scribbles, resembling notebook sketches, coexist with 2D animation that pays homage to iconic cartoon shows. The majority of the film also features painstakingly rotoscoped segments, a noteworthy achievement considering its status as an independently-funded venture without the support of a major studio, and certainly lacking the security of more widely distributed films.

The film grapples with adult themes without pandering to the desire for tidy resolutions. The animation style feels personal because it is. It mirrors an impending explosion, revealing dark, repressed, and taboo topics through each stroke, hue, and shift in motion. The film consistently shatters the boundaries of its visual style, quite literally, as elements fracture, skies crumble, and body parts vanish. What we witness is the externalization of Eric’s mental landscape, a mixed media assemblage doubling as human consciousness. It’s messy and unpolished, contradicting the typical goal of animation for clarity and perfection. This is where the beauty of the film resides.

As the Philippines’ official submission to the Academy Awards for the upcoming 2024 Oscars, I can’t help but think about how this film encapsulates much of what makes Filipino cinema special. The film exudes a raw quality, as if crafted from the hum of overheating laptops, coffee-stained cuffs, and constantly crashing software.

Amid the spotlight on artists like Carlo Aquino and Dolly de Leon, the unsung heroes emerge—the animators. Their brilliance lies in the myriad ways they were able to express themselves in the canvas Papa has provided, ultimately giving the film a pulse, a collective heartbeat echoing the multitude of artists telling their stories one brushstroke at a time. It stands as one of, if not the best, that the Philippines has to offer this year. –

Add a comment

Sort by

There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.

Summarize this article with AI

How does this make you feel?

Download the Rappler App!
Face, Head, Person


Ryan Oquiza

Ryan Oquiza is a film critic for Rappler and has contributed articles to CNN Philippines Life, Washington City Paper, and PhilSTAR Life.