It’s interesting looking at the poster for Missing (2022) by Shinzo Katayama. The poster shows high school student Kaede and her father, Satoshi standing side by side. However, Kaede is looking at the board behind her while Satoshi is staring directly at the camera with a dispassionate face. Couple that with the clothes Satoshi is wearing, and you wouldn’t be wrong in thinking that the movie’s conceit is as straightforward as the premise would have you believe.
The movie begins with us being shown that Kaede is the adult in a family of two, between her father and her. Satoshi looks haggard, with a hangdog visage. Having sunk into depression due to debt, Satoshi one day informs Kaede that he is going to track down the serial killer that has been terrorizing their city for the last couple of months and that he had seen him a couple of days ago. Kaede dismisses it as Satoshi either joking or ranting inconsequentially. Reality comes crashing through when she realizes the next day that her father is missing. As she searches for her father with her classmate, who has a crush on her, she realizes that her father’s identity has been stolen by another man who has been working as a labourer, and worse still, he might be a serial killer. But as the movie progresses, the narrative shifts upside-down, opening up its crevices and unspooling its moral dilemma.
Shinzo Katayama was the assistant director of “Mother,” the 2009 film of his mentor Bong Joon Ho (Parasite, Memories of Murder), and like his mentor, Katayama is very much interested in playing with questions of deepening moral crises and decisions that would be taken by normal people during a crisis, as expected in the genre. Unlike his mentor, Katayama doesn’t take the linear route of storytelling. He’s more interested in combining disparate genre styles to create an unrecognizable whole. A soup where the ingredients slowly start to be recognized once the soup hits the taste buds.
The first act, which deals with Kaede’s search for her father, is exquisitely paced and meticulously crafted because Kaede, as a character, feels well-rounded. Her interactions, her vulnerability, her losing her mind and bursting into tears, her confronting Yamauchi, the suspected serial killer, and the eventual chase that follows all feel definitively grounded and believable. The comedy that is mined from those moments also feels relatable and circumstantial instead of being forced into the equation. Thus, unlike most child actors in movies, Aoi Ito as Kaede truly takes our hand as the protagonist and guides us into the journey. That is until the first act comes to an end.
Katayama here chooses to change the perspective entirely by focusing on a completely new individual. Yamauchi, the serial killer with his fetishes and foibles, is introduced with the creepiness and violent propensity that only a South Korean movie can push concerning envelopes. However, these moments of sexual fetishizing intermixed with violence feel partly forced into the narrative. The unique wrinkle, however, is the unfurling of the proverbial “why.” Why does the serial killer exist in this world crafted by Katayama and his writing teams? And what we are revealing is an existential question of choice: the perils, merits, and demerits of euthanasia. But as Katayama takes this twisty plot to deeper, muddier waters, introducing and exploring how Satoshi got kidnapped, we are meant to realize how evil could spring up from supposedly good intentions. How the seed of evil planted in humanity could be caused by simply balancing and unbalancing a power equation. What begins as a story of a young girl searching for her father as a serial killer prowls turns into how a serial killing could be recontextualized or rationalized as a social outcome And as push comes to shove, how long can a man try to maintain his virtues while navigating the dilemma he has found himself in? Katayama pushes the protagonists deeper and deeper until the third act climaxes horrifically in a pool of blood and suddenly connects with the end of the first act.
But it’s not the screenplay structure and, thus, the non-linear storytelling that pushes Missing over the edge. It’s a strong undercurrent of emotions that drives all of the principal characters forward, and by the time the final scene with Kaede and Satoshi is playing on the screen, you watch with bated breath. As Kaede and Satoshi play table tennis and their conversation slowly starts to reveal everything, we see Kaede break down as she plays the forehand, not losing a beat as Satoshi smacks the ball back to her. The play continues until it eventually stops, along with your heart, as the story ends with an inevitability.
Nakayama’s non-linear storytelling has some hiccups. There are moments where an emotional connection with characters is hard to reestablish as the story changes perspective. But the screenplay and the acting ensure that the sleight-of-hand structure of the storytelling is maintained throughout. Missing is a simple and touching story that works well in the genre pool to which it belongs. As a plot, it is convoluted but maintains the grip of the narrative quite tightly throughout its running time. While it does lack tension, it makes up for it in raw emotion and a soulful, evocative score. This is not Katayama’s Memories of Murder, but it manages to impart the complexities of the human psyche all the same.