‘The Missing’ creates a refreshing image of the Filipino OFW in Japan; of architects working as professionals in a foreign land. It is quite a welcomed surprise to see the Filipino OFW depicted as people with options. It explores the possibilities of our countrymen that isn’t rooted in desperation. That’s not a narrative that is explored too often that might bring out a level of hope for Filipinos who watch it.
But ‘The Missing’ is also a horror. And while it has a more uplifting image of the Filipino overseas foreign worker, it highlights how our own baggage, the ones we bring with us abroad, can make us vulnerable to abuse and susceptible to being exploited.
Ritz Azul plays Iris, an architect suffering from the trauma of having lost her youngest sister to a kidnapping ring. It has left her traumatized and her mother inert. With her doctor’s permission, she is finally able to go off her meds and take a job to Saga, Japan with a former lover, Job (played by Joseph Marco). They would work together in restoring the ancestral home of their former professor, Mr. Riku Watanabe (played by Joe Ishikawa).
Left alone in the empty house at night with Job, Iris is haunted by ghosts, which she is unsure if they are hallucinations brought about by going off meds or if they are real, and this makes her very, very vulnerable and spiraling into a horrible and dark secret.
Director and screenwriter Easy Ferrer leans more heavily into jump scares than in laying down the groundwork for a psychological thriller. The horror relies more on sudden movement happening in the background, or sudden dashes of a frightening figure right in front of the screen.
There were so much better avenues that Ferrer could have pushed harder against. It’s almost a trope of how no one believes it when a character claims she’s seeing ghosts. In this day and age, it would be a perfect arena to play around in as we discuss how seriously we treat people suffering from trauma and our own beliefs on the supernatural. Because these things play heavily into the film and would give Ritz Azul more opportunities to show off some really good acting.
But the film seems to feel more comfortable going for the easy scares, which is a shame.
Because if there’s anything that feels horrifying in the film, it is how Job not only dismisses Iris’ claims of seeing ghosts, he easily shares her trauma with strangers, including Len (played by Miles Ocampo), a Filipina intern, finishing her last year in university in Saga and who suspiciously seems more interested in her past relationship with Job than she is in working on the house.
Job’s disregard for Iris’ personal story, his dismissal of her experiences of hauntings, and his constant insistence to talk about how she had left him when he needed her the most is another layer of horror that haunts Iris and makes her feel even more trapped in this sad, cold, and lonely place.
There’s so much working for ‘The Missing’ to really dig into a truly horrifying experience, but the film feels more intent on the plot than it does in digging into its themes. It’s refreshing to see that the baggage that we bring with us as Filipinos is the Achilles Heel that marks us as easy victims for the cultural practices that can serve to exploit us in the countries where we end up working — in the film’s case, it’s an unusual but very interesting supernatural ritual — and we aren’t safe whether we are blue collar or white collar. The film makes a solid case of fixing our issues back at home first before we consider sending any more people to work abroad.
But despite what could have worked, ‘The Missing’ is hindered by mise-en-scene that’s too clean, too well-lit, too pretty that it is difficult to draw any sense of dread from the scenes. The images aren’t gritty enough to evoke the sense of fear needed to carry it through, which is why I would have preferred more focus on the internal forces than the external ones.
Miles Ocampo is doing the best she can with an underwritten character, and Joseph Marco’s performance lacks a warmth that can play off the duality of Job’s character. If anything, it is Ritz Azul who is the anchor to ‘The Missing,’ delivering a solid performance of a woman who is desperately trying to hold herself together as she’s thrust into an unfamiliar world.
Fortunately, the film never treats itself as a tourist-y movie, the way some films set in foreign soil are. It highlights the mood and cultural practices of the locality in a more organic way. There’s a lot of potential here that I hope future films can explore, subverting familiar tropes and reinventing how we see them the way ‘The Missing’ attempts to do. In a year where our worst fears have become real, it’s a lot harder now to scare us than we once were.
The Missing is available for streaming at P250 until January 7, 2021. Tickets are sold via Globe’s GMovies, while the film can be streamed via Upstream.