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“A Girl Missing” finds tragic drama in a mystery-thriller’s clothing

Kōji Fukada’s poignantly subversive film will be available virtually through MMoCA’s Spotlight Cinema on October 28.

Kōji Fukada’s poignantly subversive film will be available virtually through MMoCA’s Spotlight Cinema on October 28.

While supplies last, free viewing links will also be accessible to MMoCA members.

Revenge thrillers often rely on a search for catharsis. With characters chasing personal closure and viewers seeking the resolution of narrative tension, the genre’s purpose is often driven by the anticipation of seeing an act of revenge play out. Kōji Fukada’s 2019 film A Girl Missing subverts this format by reconfiguring the revenge story as a nonlinear two-hander where a protagonist’s fall and rise happen simultaneously. While this robs the film of more conventional pleasures, it allows Fukada to tease out the disquieting realities of vengeance in a more nuanced, if frustrating, way. It streams October 28 through November 5 via the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s Spotlight Cinema series.

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While even a cursory description of the plot of A Girl Missing quickly gets into spoiler territory, the film very apparently alternates between two different time periods. In one period, Ichiko (Mariko TsuTsui) is a well-adjusted caretaker-nurse with a family of her own, while she becomes a conniving and lonely figure who stalks her hairdresser in the other. In her more even-keeled phase, Ichiko has an intimate closeness with one of her elderly client’s families and spends time with her granddaughters Motoko (Mikako Ichikawa) and Saki (Miyu Ozawa) outside of work hours. Saki is kidnapped shortly after meeting Ichiko’s nephew, Tetsuo, who she introduces to the girls at a coffee shop.

When Saki returns unharmed and it’s revealed that Tetsuo was responsible for the kidnapping, Motoko urges Ichiko to not tell their mother of her connection to the crime, or risk never seeing them again. Motoko sticks fast to her insistence that Ichiko keep the secret; and her ulterior, romantic motives become clearer as Ichicko’s discomfort with the arrangement builds. Meanwhile, in the present timeline, Ichiko lives alone in an apartment mostly decorated by bags of trash. She spends her days patiently courting her new hairdresser Kazumichi (Sosuke Ikematsu), and nights staring out her window at the apartment across the street where Kazumichi lives with his fiancée, Motoko. While the circumstances of Ichiko and Motoko’s estrangement aren’t clear, Ichiko seems to be plotting against her. 

Despite this complex plotting, A Girl Missing is still a slow-burn, content to let Ichiko’s relationships with her friends and family subtly change over the course of their conversations. Though the details of the film’s nominal mystery get stranger as the film develops, Fukada’s interests as a filmmaker lie elsewhere. What begins as a tantalizing plot thread among the film’s complicated relationships turns into a given enigma. In truly postmodern fashion, sordid details of the crime become secondary points of action to the individual (Ichiko)’s interpretations of them. Thus, A Girl Missing is rarely as thrilling as a more conventional revenge film; it’s really a tragic drama in a mystery thriller’s clothing, like a more melodramatic take on the stark films of Michael Haneke or Ricky D’Ambrose’s Notes On An Appearance (2018). The schematic organization of A Girl Missing lends itself to this, as Ichiko’s relationships with her friends and family are destined to fall apart, turning her into a bitter and vengeful person. By treating the eventual desire for revenge as a foregone conclusion with an outcome that can only be disappointing for all parties, the film is revealed as a poignant meditation on the ways suppressed emotions can manifest themselves in ways that are evil, banal, or both. 

Mariko TsuTsui’s fine-tuned performance as Ichiko lends the film considerable thematic weight, as she simultaneously plays a meek character trapped by circumstance and a calculating stalker-turned-love interest. In parallel scenes set at the same zoo, a friendly Ichiko first receives the increasingly unsubtle come-ons of Motoko, then harnesses that same energy herself to attempt to seduce Kazumichi. Even as her behavior becomes villainous, this sort of plan never seems to consume Ichiko’s true character. Living in squalor with the naïve hope that one act will restore some cosmic balance, she is a defeated individual dutifully carrying out the fantasy of a femme fatale, mirroring the film’s formal bait and switch by imbuing a trope with a resigned sadness. For some, this characterization may be too awkward, but others may find TsuTsui’s mild mastery to be the perfect vehicle for this opaque and challenging film.

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