Note: This is not a spoiler-free review and will discuss the film’s major plot points, as well as potentially triggering content including childhood trauma, death, sexual assault, and child abuse.
“Iti Mapukpukaw” is the first full-length animated feature film to make its way into the Cinemalaya roster—where it’s currently this year’s highest grossing film. It tells the story of Eric (Carlo Aquino), an animator living a regular life, with a regular job, a loving mom (Dolly De Leon), and a crush on his coworker, Carlo (Gio Gahol). The thing is, he doesn’t have a mouth.
Unable to speak, Eric communicates in day-to-day life via a whiteboard and video chats with his mom who lives in their home province of Ilocos.
After working late one night Carlo offers to take Eric home and maybe grab a bite. Before they could leave, Eric’s mother Rosalinda calls him to check on his uncle, who has seemingly gone missing.
That night, Eric’s seemingly normal life gets turned on its head after discovering the lifeless, decomposing corpse of his uncle. Out of nowhere, Eric is abducted by an alien and this is right about when things take a turn for the strange.
Deep, traumatic roots
As the film progresses, it’s revealed that the alien abduction isn’t an alien abduction at all. It’s Eric’s way of coping with his childhood sexual abuse at the hands of his uncle—which is also why he was drawn without a mouth (but more on that later).
Finding his uncle’s dead body triggered his deep-seated, unprocessed trauma. This trauma manifests itself through hallucinatory episodes where he’s dissociating from reality and being abducted by aliens.
With the increasing frequency of “alien abductions,” we see Eric imagining himself lose more parts. At the start of the film, he was only without a mouth. Later on, he also loses his ear, an eye, his genitals, and his hand (which was turned into a transparent layer on photoshop—kind of breaking the fourth wall, as well as possibly being a nod to the amazing animators on the team).
The order in which his parts go missing—and when they go missing—is important. The mouth was first, obviously because he couldn’t tell anyone what happened. He lost his eye when he saw his uncle’s casket for the first time (where we meet his cousin who also doesn’t have a mouth), and his private bits when things were heating up with Carlo.
Trauma doesn’t stay as it is. It evolves and changes over time, and sadly, gets bigger and more intense the longer they stay buried.
In flashbacks, we see Eric as a happy, talkative kid. Eric’s uncle moves in with him and his mom after the failure of his marriage. This is, sadly, when the multiple instances of sexual assault begin. After a car ride with his uncle, Eric comes home without a mouth and rendered unable to speak.
For survivors of childhood sexual assault—and sexual assault in general—losing important parts of youself is a common occurence. The movie interpreted it in a literal manner, with Eric literally losing important parts of his body required for living a normal life.
These alien abductions (read: dissociative episodes) also take a toll on Eric’s relationships.
At the start of the film, we see things warming up between Eric and his crush, Carlo. The further and more intensely his alien hallucinations progress, the more it drives a wedge between the potential lovers.
During the dissociative episodes, it becomes apparent that Eric literally forgets where he is and completely exits the real world. In one instance, Eric invites Carlo back to his place where they’re supposed to watch a movie. Carlo offers to buy snacks at the convenience store nearby when another “alien abduction” occurs.
When Eric returns to his senses, it’s morning and he’s faced with a frustrated Carlo who was banging on his locked door the entire time. Carlo storms out—which is seemingly the end of their budding relationship—and leaves Eric chasing after him.
The movie does a fantastic job of illustrating the difficult and frustrating realities of a sexual assault survivor.
Nolisoli managing editor Pauline Miranda (and my wonderful boss who watched the movie with me and handed me a tissue to wipe my tears and snot away) also noted that these alien abductions tend to happen when something romantic or intimate—not necessarily sexual—is about to happen between Carlo and Eric.
It’s common for survivors of sexual assault to be triggered by these types of encounters, even if they’re interested in the other person and give their full consent. That’s just another layer of how difficult it is to navigate trauma and its aftermath.
A hard-earned reclamation
All of Eric’s unprocessed trauma bleeds into the real world, affecting his relationship with his mother (who is unaware of the truth) and almost nips the slowly blossoming relationship he has with Carlo in the bud.
Carlo’s reaction to Eric’s behavior is expected. Carlo has no idea that this is what Eric’s going through, so frustrations are bound to rise. What makes this film special is that aside from painting the realities of living with this kind of trauma, it shows just how much love and care can also coexist with—and eventually—defeat it.
During the film’s climax, Carlo joins Eric on an impromptu road trip to (unbeknownst to either of them at the time) Eric’s childhood home to defeat the phallically-drawn alien (which represents the trauma he experienced as a child). Carlo, God bless him, plays along (with imagined guns and all) and tries to help Eric defeat the extraterrestrial being.
After the battle, we see the scene the movie’s poster is taken from. Eric cuddled up under the bed between Carlo and Rosalinda as they both comfort him through the night. It was a deeply moving scene that portrayed the love, patience, and compassion people have for each other.
At the end of the film, we see Eric (accompanied by Rosalinda and Carlo) digging up his uncle’s grave. Inside the casket are his missing parts—which he takes back and puts back on. A literal reclamation of what’s been stolen.
After decades of silence, he finally puts his mouth back on. The film ends with him telling Rosalinda and Carlo that he has something to tell them.
Love—as it’s meant to be
The film is a victorious reclamation of one’s self, with the care and support of the people who love you. With an all-star cast, the acting was of course superb.
For most of the film, we see Eric losing more and more parts, which makes their reclamation even more victorious. He played the character as real as it can get, showing not only the good and the bad, but also all the ugly that comes with his baggage. The nuance in his physical acting seeps into your heart, which makes the film all the more precious.
That being said, Carlo Aquino literally acted his eyes (ear, hand, and other parts) off.
Dolly De Leon’s portrayal of Rosalinda was warm and funny, but it also showed how no matter how you care for someone, important details may fall through the cracks.
Gio Gahol as Carlo portrayed such a tender, loving, and grounded reflection of a man (potentially) in love. But beyond the romance, the compassion and true humanity of how he cared for Eric was where his character truly shined.
As difficult as the subject matter is, “Iti Mapukpukaw” executed it with a gentle, kind, and surprisingly fun deftness. As strange as it may sound, the beautiful rotoscope animation helped ground the film further and illustrate how it feels to go through life carrying that kind of weight.
The film also showed just how important community is. While the love Rosalinda and Carlo showed Eric wasn’t the magic cure-all for the resolution of his trauma, it was an important push to help him reclaim himself. Human beings aren’t meant to exist alone, and the film reminds us that we all need each other to live a full and beautiful life.
The premise of an animator facing alien abductions is quite literally out of this world, but when it comes to talking about trauma, compassion, understanding, humanity, and real love, it’s as grounded as it gets.
Needless to say, you simply must run to the theaters and catch this film. Just make sure to bring a whole lot of tissues.