'A Girl Missing' Review: A Kidnapping Leads To A Suffocating Character Study [NYFF 2019]

A Girl Missing has fleeting swirls into trancelike bizarreness such as when its protagonist, the middle-aged Ichiko (Mariko Tsutsui), dreams herself crawling on all fours, growling at a young woman, ready to pounce—before the former wakes up in her untidy apartment. The betrayal that drove this cut-short revenge fantasy begins to unravel.

Kôji Fukada's A Girl Missing follows the fall of Ichiko, an amiable private nurse for an old painter in a sleepy town. She has a sisterly bond with the two granddaughters, Saki (Miyu Ogawa) and Motoko (Mikako Ichikawa).

Ichiko has yet to realize that the rug of stability will be pulled from beneath her. But the rug is first pulled from beneath Saki when she is abducted, a crime kept off-screen. Fortunately, Saki's abductor is captured and Saki is home safe, seemingly unscathed physically—but psychologically battered. Then Ichiko glances at the news footage and is shocked to discover that her own nephew was Saki's abductor. She didn't see any red flags. Since she did see her nephew hours before Saki's vanishing, the nurse nearly decides to report this information to the police and Saki's mother, but Motoko insists that she withholds this information, otherwise her mother might not welcome her in the house and the press might swamp her. Ichiko's unwise decision to comply with her confidante's suggestion ends up costing her when the truth leaks out in unpleasant ways.

Fukada doesn't concern the story with the kidnapper's motivations, rather, it's used as a means to examine collateral suffering. Saki is the principle victim, the one immediately seized away from functionality and into the spotlight of a slut-shaming public, but she is a supporting player in Ichiko's story and begins to shrink in the narrative. Ichiko becomes smeared in a merciless world that's more knee-jerk punitive than listening.

Fukada plays with how people take the parameters of privacy and self-preservation for granted. At first, Ichiko believes Motoko's suggestion out of self-preservation, underestimating the journalistic potentials that can easily breach her discretion. It froths into catastrophe when the truths metastasize into out-of-proportion presumptions in the mind of the sensation-starved media. She loses her reputation, occupation, her fiancé and her stepson, and her dignity. Ichiko is left searching for rehabilitation, but her odd and miserable circumstance does not match a frame of victimhood for an organized support system to deem her worthy of assistance. 

Fukada weaves two timelines: Ichiko's life during the recent before-and-afters of Saki's kidnapping, and an unspecified future where Ichiko has assumed the identity of "Risa," a morose recluse still mulling in the aftermath. Particularly, the two timelines don't interact as traditional flashbacks where a character's reminiscing transports the viewer to the past. But rather, the two timelines cohabit as if they are both the present to delineate her constant struggle. Phenomenally, Tsutsui beholds the reserved demureness of Ichiko as well as she embodies the scheming bitterness of Risa.

The beats toward Motoko's ultimate betrayal feel more thrown in than planned. Motoko's immature infatuation for Ichiko grows evident as the film progresses, as keyed in by her devastation when she sees Ichiko's fiancé. Later, the latter discloses an inexplicable anecdote—a tale provoked by the sight of a rhino's erection at the zoo—to Motoko. To Ichiko's brain, it isn't a big deal to reveal to a close friend. But Motoko exploits this anecdote to petty means. Ichiko realizes too late that Motoko seems more interested in possessing her than protecting her.

Tsutsui's restraint suggests that socially-conditioned silence has a role in Ichiko's initial silence and her inability to directly confront the source—or a source—of her fall. Whether or not you sympathize with Ichiko's later choices as Risa, the more she loses face, the more tantalizing the character study. Fukada understands the intensity of desiring vengeance, confrontation, or closure where clear-cut retaliation isn't feasible, particularly when Ichiko is frequently dreaming of—or having nightmares of—confrontations that will never go her way.

Through the knottiness of its beats, I relish the conceptual study of A Girl Missing more than the whole presentation. Its melodramatic bricks shiver and shake and nearly tumbles upon itself. A Girl Missing searches for endings, as if Ichiko's distress is nothing but a psychological labyrinth of a never-ending scream. Ichiko has few ways to scream, perhaps because life never trained her to scream.

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10