‘Harmonium’ director Koji Fukada returns with a bifurcated story of scandal and revenge.
A caregiver becomes a pariah in A Girl Missing, Koji Fukada’s follow-up to 2016’s Un Certain Regard-lauded Harmonium. A tale of scandal and spite that keeps its burner set to low instead of exploiting a very fraught plot for seedy suspense, it centers on a slowly-unveiled tit-for-tat that will strike many viewers as too tidy to believe. Lead Mariko Tsutsui (also of Harmonium) is haunted here, delivering a performance that’s affecting even when we’re in the dark about what her character is thinking. But this turn alone isn’t quite enough to make the Japanese import an easy sell to English-language viewers.
Tsutsui plays Ichiko, a home nurse employed by the family of an aging painter. It’s a sweet scenario despite the matriarch’s slow decline: Ichiko is friendly with the whole family, and often meets the granddaughters, Motoko (Mikako Ichikawa) and Saki (Miyu Ogawa) at a cafe after work to help them with their studies. At one of these get-togethers, she introduces the girls to her nephew Tatsuo (Ren Sudo), who stops by briefly to return some books. Later that day (and far from the camera’s view, thank goodness), the boy abducts Saki, the younger of the sisters.
Saki is soon recovered, easing a citywide panic, and Tatsuo is taken into custody. But, with Saki possibly in post-traumatic denial — the question of whether she was raped is not answered definitively — Motoko is the only person who knows the connection between the nurse and the kidnapper. She urges Ichiko not to tell anyone, knowing how the news would wound her mother, and, perhaps, wanting to share a secret with the older woman she’s coming to see as a model. The two spend more time together by themselves, mostly ignoring the discomfort Ichiko feels with lying to her employer and friend. (And to her fiance, who happens to be the family’s doctor.)
Meanwhile, the film follows a parallel storyline set a few weeks after Saki’s safe return. Ichiko, using another name, makes an appointment at a hair salon with a stylist named Yoneda (Sosuke Ikematsu). We later see her stalking the young man and deceitfully working her way into his life. It turns out he is or was Motoko’s boyfriend. What’s going on here?
What sits between these two narratives is a painful but unsensational episode in which Ichiko’s connection to Tatsuo is very publicly exposed, tabloids invent lurid lies about her, and a queasy-making episode from her past is revealed at the worst possible moment. A good woman’s life falls apart in the span of a day or two, through (almost) no fault of her own. (Any post-film discussion of that “almost” may become heated.)
Missing hinges not on the eponymous girl — it’s hardly interested in her at all, in fact — but on the friendship between her sister and Ichiko. Ichikawa animates the young woman to the point that we’d like to spend more time with her; but the film’s handling of the shifting dynamics between the two can be abrupt, doing a disservice to both actors. They have some heavy weight to lift, after all, as things take turns the film’s opening scenes do nothing to foreshadow. This would be a very different movie in most other hands, and in many cases, a worse one. Still, there’s something missing in this look at a happy life’s destruction.
Production companies: Kadokawa Daiei Studio, Comme Des Cinemas
Distributor: Film Movement (Available Friday, July 31 on virtual cinema)
Cast: Mariko Tsutsui, Mikako Ichikawa, Sosuke Ikematsu, Hisako Ookata, Mitsuru Fukikoshi, Miyu Ogawa, Ren Sudo
Director-Screenwriter: Koji Fukada
Producers: Naohiko Ninomiya, Daisuke Futagi, Hirohisa Mukuju, Masa Sawada
Executive producer: Shinichiro Inoue
Director of photography: Kenichi Negishi
Production designer: Yasuaki Harada
Costume designer: Kyoko Baba
Editors: Koji Fukada, Julia Gregory
Composer: Hiroyuki Onogawa