Don’t miss it

Ferdinand S. Topacio - The Philippine Star
Don�t miss it
In the film, Ritz Azul goes through an entire range of emotions satisfaction at having bagged a lucrative project, a trauma victim experiencing extreme depression and guilt, doubt, cynicism, profound terror and excitement that would be daunting to an actress 20 years her senior.

Film review: The Missing

MANILA, Philippines — An old house with a shadowy past in a bucolic Japanese village. Two former lovers with a mysterious history. An enigmatic Japanese who employs them for renovation. The dark Japanese legend of human sacrifice called “hitobashira.” These are the principal elements that form the structure of auteur Easy Ferrer’s Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) entry titled The Missing.

After some embarrassments such as Wanderbra (2018) and a string of decent movies that almost no one watched, Regal Films has returned to doing what it does best: Horror films. A fitting homage to Japanese horror movie tradition, it was filmed almost entirely in Saga, Japan, a provincial town far removed from the glitz and gloss of Tokyo. There sits a centuries-old house in need of substantial repair. For this, its aging owner Riku (Joe Ishikawa) hires Iris (Ritz Azul), an up-and-coming architect, recommended by her old flame and colleague, Job (Joseph Marco).

Unable to resist Riku’s generous offer, Iris flies to Japan, where she meets her employer and his son (played by Seiyo Masunaga). As she plunges into the renovation, however, she notices strange things a-happening: Odd shadows dart around, weird noises emanate from walls, horrifying visions. At first, she attributes these to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), for which she is taking therapy and medication. Acquired when she personally witnessed her younger sister’s abduction, she is emotionally devastated not only by the crime, but by the hate her mother visits upon her when she is blamed for the disappearance.

In time, the bizarre apparitions not only become more frequent but find validation when Aki, too, starts seeing them. Her curiosity piqued, Iris starts investigating, going through things she finds around the house. She discovers that many people fixing the house have gone missing. After an alarming incident involving Len (Miles Ocampo), Job’s understudy, a hired hand (Yamamoto) begins talking about the Japanese legend of human sacrifices by burying people alive, tied to building foundations, in order to propitiate the gods and ensure that the structures do not collapse. Iris was also told of the chilling chronicle of Riku’s residence, of a long-standing, blood-soaked family feud behind it, and how it has resulted in the house’s sinister ambiance.

The film is a slow, quiet thriller, starting off unhurriedly, gradually building up into a powerful crescendo of action and imagery that hits the audience with the force of a ballistic missile. The tone is silent, with total economy of musical score, and the scary moments — except towards the end — are few and far between. But the sense of overbearing dread never leads the viewer. Departing from the usual reliance on jump scares and horrific images, the film deliberately takes its time building up its suspense through the use of space, light and shadow, and an eerie atmosphere enhanced by deep blue chroma.

Everyone in the movie acted well, including the Japanese actors. Joseph delivers with his usual competence, although he has a tendency to mumble his lines, and methinks he preens to much before the cameras. Even formerly hammy Miles has clearly matured since Write About Love (2019). This, though, is clearly Ritz’s vehicle. And she truly drives it well. I have never seen a Ritz Azul movie before, so she was pure delight to watch as she goes through an entire range of emotions — satisfaction at having bagged a lucrative project, a trauma victim experiencing extreme depression and guilt, doubt, cynicism, profound terror and excitement — that would be daunting to an actress 20 years her senior. Yet Ritz does all of those with aplomb, all the while resisting the urge to overact, as actors are wont to do in a horror flick. Indeed, “underacting” may very well be her middle name. Parsimonious with her gestures and facial expressions, she is able to convey a world of meaning with a simple look, a wrinkling of the forehead, a raised brow. Verily, it would be no exaggeration to say that in her, we may have found a worthy heiress to Claudine Barretto.

The story is also cleanly arched, crisply edited and incorporates brilliant parallelism between two plot lines: Iris’ mother’s longing to find her snatched daughter and a Japanese mother’s protracted search for her missing son who disappeared inside Riku’s house, both of which eventually find morbid resolution. The contrast between the beauty of the Japanese countryside and the horrors hidden behind the walls of its ancient residences, where Job says that many elderly Japanese die alone and left undiscovered for months, also adds to the movie’s sense of the macabre. Coupled with an ambiguous, thought-provoking ending, and the film will bear repeated watching.

In sum, The Missing is much like fusion cuisine: A taste of familiar Japanese food with Filipino flavor thrown in generously for novelty and variety. It is a near-perfect mix, and if you want your thriller taste buds tickled, it definitely is not to be missed.

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