After a release in 2021, first-time feature director Shinzô Katayama’s (Mother, third assistant director) horror/thriller Missing (さがす) is having its North American premiere during Fantasia International Film Festival 2021. The concept of the film seeks to join the likes of Se7en (1995); Frailty (2001); The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil (2019); or The Little Things (2021); using the hunt for a vicious serial killer as the impetus for edge-of-your-seat drama. Strangely, Missing lacks those elements which create nail-biting moments for an effective psychological thriller, though it does offer some thoughtful exploration of morality, ethics, and parenthood that do linger.
Since having to close his ping-pong business due to medical bills, widower Santoshi (Jirô Satô) is having trouble keeping it together for his daughter Kaede (Aoi Itô). In a last ditch effort to turn their fortune around, he vows to Kaede that he’ll capture the serial killer “No Name” (Hiroya Shimizu), recently sighted in their area. She doesn’t take this pledge from her formerly silly father seriously, even when he proclaims that he thinks he spotted him on a train recently. That is until her father goes missing the next day, absent from work and not returning her calls. Unwilling to lose another parent, Kaede sets out to find her father, unprepared for what she will discover.
Missing is the rare frustrating watch where the parts are stronger than the whole. The *idea* of this film is compelling, but the execution of co-writers Kazuhisa Kotera (Innocent Blood) and Ro Takada’s script lacks to the point where the few intriguing moments make one wonder if this is time well spent. Without spoiling things, Missing shares more in common with Bad Times at the El Royale (2018) than Se7en in that Kaede is not our sole perspective. The film begins with her, but then shifts gears to an alternative, time-shifted POV. This is perfectly fine as there are many films that switch perspectives, increasing drama and tension with each one. The trick is that this first perspective (Kaede’s) is dull, frustratingly so. The film opens with her running, a smart technique as it incites a desire to question if she’s running toward or away from something. It’s a kinetic choice, kicking off what should be a griping tale. Yet, things slow down immeasurably from there while simultaneously rushing. By the time the father goes missing, we’ve barely spent time with Kaede and her father, so the audience is unable to see their relationship as close but contentious and their individual motivations are unclear. She seems aggravated by her father’s unwillingness to be active in his life and we don’t know why. There’s a moment where he’s silly with her before his disappearance, a joke slipped into a fight, which does defuse their interpersonal tension, yet the audience doesn’t know enough about their specific relationship to understand *why* his joke works. Later, when it comes up again, it’s similarly weak within the context we’re given. Then, when her father does go missing and she starts the hunt, the story that follows involves characters we haven’t met, whose relationships to Kaede are (again) developed in a rush, and who seem to have little meaning beyond creating narrative tension for the segment (which they don’t succeed in doing). Once the perspective shifts, the film reveals itself for what it is and engagement improves, not because of who it follows, but that it takes its time in making its revelations and generating connective tissue.
But where the narrative is shallow in execution, the ideas within it are deep. As the narrative unfurls itself, the audience learns about how Kaede and Santoshi became a family of two. In this portion of the story, Kotera and Takada turn their attention to the not-discussed Kimiko Harada (Tôko Narushima), who was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. It’s at this point that Missing turns into an exploration of life and death in the literal sense, shedding its serial killer psychological thriller aspect in order to explore and examine what it means to live a life with little agency. The performances from Satô and Narushima are devastating as each, in some cases wordlessly, convey the depth of their love for each other and the differing helplessness each feel. Kimiko’s losing her ability to move and communicate more and more, Santoshi doesn’t want her to go but feels the weight of her needs pressing upon him. In this portion of the film, questions are raised regarding ethical death and whether someone has the right or obligation to either allow someone to end their own life on their own terms or assist someone else who does. The answers Kotera and Takada present reverberate through the characters, their respective perspectives determining who’s the hero and who’s the villain. The where and the how Santoshi, Kaede, and No Name intersect allows these questions to come to a slow broil, adding in the weight that’s missing from the initial POV, giving heft to Missing’s conclusion.
Many films can be saved from a clever or intriguing ending. The kind of story whose well-placed bow makes all the time preceding it worth the endeavor — think The Usual Suspects (1995) or Se7en. Sadly, Missing is more like The Little Things, chock-full of interesting ideas that are poignant in the moment and far too hesitant in the aftermath. In trying to keep things spoiler-free, it’s difficult to dive into the specifics of the misfires: the setups that make little sense in the moment and don’t pay off well later, the sexual component that’s explicit in some ways and implied in others (failing to shift past shock to inflate the villainy), and the shifted perspective component that only really creates a flow once Kaede is removed from the narrative. There’s an interesting story in Kaede’s search for her father on his serial killer hunt and the revelations we receive do offer some heartrending thrills, yet the whole is nowhere as wretched or affecting as it wants to be.
Screening during the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival.
For more information, head to the official Missing Fantasia International Film Festival film page.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.