A Girl Missing, the latest from Harmonium director Fukada Kōji, can be best described as the sensationalized media show trial element of Sympathy for Lady Vengeance filtered through an austere Lee Chang-dong or Anthony Chen film. This is much more bizarre combination than you’d think; it takes something highly sensationalized, and fractures it into a million disparate pieces, now conjoined by a shifting double narrative and characterized by a sanitized formal precision. It’s impossible to suggest that Fukada does not craft a beautiful picture. They do. But it is as impenetrable as it is well-constructed, a frustrating picture that needs a just a little more clarity.
Full disclosure, I restarted this several times before I finally made it through; it was not for lack of attention, but rather, because A Girl Missing simply demands so much of it. Generally speaking, I have no qualms about forcing your audience to work at your film. Obfuscation for obfuscation’s sake, however, is more frustrating than illuminating.
The frustration of A Girl Missing stems from its dual narrative. At the centre of it are two women, Risa and Ichiko (both played by Tsutui Mariko). The former is introduced to us from the start of the film, as we see her in the process of having her hair dyed, a transformation that marks which is which. It’s the transformation of the latter into the former that makes up the bulwark of Fukada’s film.
The circumstances of that transformation also provide the film its title. The missing girl of A Girl Missing refers to Saki (Ogawa Miyu), the youngest member of a family whose elder matriarch is nursed by Ichiko. By all accounts, Ichiko and the family are very close. Particularly with Saki and her older sister Mokoto (Ichikawa Mikako), of which the latter’s latent desire towards Ichiko is palpable. What sets the descent in motion, is Saki’s abduction at the hands of Ichiko’s nephew.
This detail is revealed to us early on in the film’s narrative, but it takes to roughly the film’s midpoint for it be narratively revealed. When it does, a media firestorm ensues; the scandal of the trusted nurse possibly being implicated in the disappearance of the beloved daughter being far too scandalous for the vultures to resist. In the meantime, the film’s flashforwards (from Ichiko to Rise) focus on her burgeoning relationship with a hairstylist (Tsutsui Mariko), who has a connection to this story in ways to be revealed.
At the risk of going full “people who misread Christopher Nolan’s Memento,” there seems to be little necessitating the film’s disjunctive narrative. Alternatively, one could suggest that a linear narrative might be more impactful, turning this into a character drama instead of a spartan arthouse drama. At the very least, a more straightforward narrative would better accentuate what should be the film’s central thematic thrust, namely the mental descent of Ichiko as she transitions into Rise.
Yet despite the film’s frustrating tendencies, Fukada’s grasp of formal precision must be commended. This is a film you understand in the details, the very specific nature of each decision. Sound design in particular strikes a noticeable chord. The use of a horn in the film’s penultimate scene, for example, is still ringing in my ears. A Girl Missing is too frustrated to deem a must-see, but simultaneously is too well crafted to write off entire. It is ultimately the quintessential arthouse thriller, more forgettable than memorable, but when it’s memorable is it ever so.