STOP10 Jun 2017: 'The Missing Words' by Khalishan Liang, Nurliayana Abdul

The Missing Words is a short film about a Chinese immigrant, who was raised a Christian but then converted to Islam and married a local Muslim woman. This mix of culture, race and religion is the heart of the film and is based on the true story of the filmmakers. It then steps up the intrigue another notch when you discover the filmmakers are playing themselves.

Firstly, the most apparent and initial impression that most people would have is that The Missing Words looks lavish and alluring. There is a bold use of light and darkness, and the stylistic cinematography that the film undertakes is almost sensual. It gives the film a heightened sense of wonder and magic, especially when it transitions into its reality bending stop-motion sequence.

The stop-motion scene that serves as its climax is interesting. It is based on a cartoon called ‘Nasreddin Afanti’ created by the Shanghai Animation Film Studio in the 70s. This tv show is a preoccupation of its leading character and  the scene serves as an homage and allegory of integration. If the Uyghur folklores about Nasreddin was able to be recontextualized for a Chinese audience, surely a Chinese Christian man could integrate himself in a new culture and start again.

At least, I think that was the aim of the filmmakers.

Personally, learning about Nasreddin was illuminating and thought provoking but emotionally it felt rather perplexing. It was largely perplexing in that, this fake character, played by a puppet was probably its most interesting character.

I feel the film lacks some aspect of humanity. The direction never allows us to latch onto any of the characters in any sympathetic way nor does it feel like we are observing actual people going through any true emotions or difficulty. It was preoccupied on some wonderful locations and sets, but shifts a lot of focus away from characterizations.

Theoretically the premise feels as though it would be ripe with drama. Even if played safe, the underlying tensions should make us care. However, it feels mostly as though the execution ignores that conflict despite some semblance of setting it up.

It also feels a bit contrived and self indulgent to have the directors as the principal cast, especially when acting and character is one of the weakest aspects of the film. It may be an attempt to recreate true events but any inkling of sincerity disappears when you consider how the acting feels wooden and uncharismatic and its mise-en-scene feels so artificial.

Perhaps the creators did themselves an injustice because the issues may still be too close to their heart.  Or simply due to a lack of acting training and experience. A perceptive actor may have been able to expose him or herself more, and I would have loved to watch that film more. 

That being said, I do respect the risk that they took. And overall the film is still a wonderful, sensual audio-visual experience, with a great deal of eye candy to behold. But the core of the film feels misguided at best. It is a film that will transport you but never to the real dramatic questions of racial and religious divides that the film was hinting at. These wounds that needed to be laid bare were unfortunately circumvented.

Written by Rifyal Giffari

You can catch The Missing Words here:

For the full list of June 2017's 10 films under STOP10, click here.  
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