The story of a young girl going missing is not new, but it’s a reliable source of mystery and suspense. Koji Fukada‘s newest film A Girl Missing uses the familiar child-gone-missing story to launch the film into motion, but it veers from a film about a missing girl to a film about a woman damned by circumstance. In a way, it’s something very different than most crime dramas, but that may not be for the better.
A Girl Missing follows Ichiko (Mariko Tsutsui) in two points of her life. The film begins and she is getting a hair cut and living like a stowaway in a small apartment. Spliced between the scenes of her as she is now, in hiding and spying on her neighbor, are scenes from earlier in her life as a private nurse. She gets close to the two granddaughters of the older woman she takes care of. The night she tutors Motoko (Mikako Ichikawa)and Saki (Miyu Ogawa) becomes the last time anyone sees Saki before she goes missing. Inadvertently, Ichiko introduces Saki to her captor when she has her nephew come to drop off books for her. Once Saki is found and Ichiko’s nephew is caught, she wrestles in silence with her part in the crime. Her life slowly unravels because of her connection to the kidnapping, when in reality she didn’t do anything wrong.
The timeline of this film could be the most interesting aspect if it didn’t cause so much confusion. Because Ichiko lies about her name in scenes that are supposed to be after the kidnapping, it’s hard to recognize that the chipper nurse in other scenes is Ichiko from earlier in her life. Seeing this woman before and after her unraveling is an interesting way to tackle the story. It builds suspense in wondering how she gets to sleeping alone in an almost empty apartment. However, there’s no real clear distinction between the different timelines. The scenes look the same and Ichiko looks like such a different person in some of her scenes that it could very well be a different character. There is no pay off for confusing the audience either, which is a missed opportunity for trickery. It ends up causing more confusion than suspense in the end.
The film wants to speak on several subjects it doesn’t have the perspective to address. Ichiko’s story is one about the guilt that women are forced to bear for crimes the evil men around them commit, but she’s seen as passive and weak. She idly watches as her reputation is ruined without making any choices to combat that when the film gives her those outs. If Fukada is trying to speak on the silence that women are forced to take in their daily lives, he does so without any admiration for his own characters.
At the heart of the story is a romantic interest between Motoko and Ichiko. Motoko convinces Ichiko to stay quiet about how she was the reason Saki crossed paths with the man who kidnapped her because she wants Ichiko to stay in her life. From there, Motoko’s attempts to stay close to Ichiko only further her demise. It’s odd to see this young girl’s love interest in a woman she trusts become suddenly demonized by the plot, but the film positions her as the villain of the story. It’s an outdated and unsettling portrayal of a gay character. Old Hollywood has previously used the scorned lesbian trope in the past because it didn’t take a stance on LGBT relationships, while simultaneously exploiting their stories. Now, there really isn’t any point in representing gay people in this way, especially when it doesn’t provide any more suspense or depth to the film.
For a thriller, the film drags the audience along with Ichiko’s inaction. When something interesting does happen, it feels so out of place with the rest of the tone that it’s unintentionally comedic. The moments meant to shock us are rendered ridiculous. In a dream sequence, Ichiko crawls down the sidewalk on all fours barking like a dog. What that is supposed to tell us about her is never clear. It’s not a relief from the drollness of the other scenes, but a laughable attempt to bring weirdness into a film that already doesn’t make much sense.
A Girl Missing is a movie about a woman unraveling but in the most melodramatic way possible. It may deviate from the tropes of usual crime dramas, but it doesn’t find anything more interesting to say. In the end, Fukada gives his main character another chance at revenge and she waves it away along with any hope for a satisfying ending. It’s ultimately counter-intuitive to tell the story of a woman who is complacent in her own tragedy and then expect the audience to care what happens to her.