[Fantastic Fest 2022 Review] 'Missing' is a Powerful Crime Thriller Searching for the Meaning of Life
It’s part of human nature to search for meaning in life…
…We want to believe that we have purpose. That there’s something more to our mundane existence. But as the killer says in director Shinzo Katayama’s Missing, which just premiered at Fantastic Fest, “life isn’t as beautiful as you think”.
Written by Katayama, Kazuhisa Kotera and Ryo Takada, Missing is a bleak crime thriller which shifts into gear after Kaede’s (Aoi Ito) father, Harada (Jiro Sato), goes missing while attempting to claim a reward for the capture of fugitive killer, Terumi (Hiroya Shimizu). Unfolding through each of the trio’s perspectives, the audience is taken on a tragic journey through the different ways in which we approach that persistent question of what it means to live.
Presented with a rather straight-forward approach that doesn’t rely on (seemingly) intricate camera-work or use of score to drive emotion, Missing is all about the characters/actors, and all three are fascinating.
During an introduction which sees young Kaede picking up her drunk father from the cops, it becomes clear that this is a girl who is 13 going on 30. With her mother having passed, Kaede is the responsible one of the household. Less a daughter than a mother to Harada, she’s the one who has to tell him to “focus on work and quite dreaming” when he suggests he go after the reward for Terumi. Ito hasn’t appeared in much, but she carries with her an intense, take no shit attitude that reminded me of a young Jodie Foster in something like The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane. Time and again, Kaede is thrown into adult situations that leave the audience breathless, with Ito captivating the screen through a fearless performance as intense as it is heartbreaking.
Missing doesn’t just pluck your heartstrings. It shatters them into dust. Katayama’s film is all about broken people who feel lost in a cold, unforgiving world, best represented by Sato’s painful portrayal of Harada. A deadbeat dad who loves his daughter but is trapped in a downward spiral consisting of booze and tears since the passing of his wife, Kimiko (Toko Narushima), he’s the epitome of a father who is trying but failing miserably. Through him, Katayama contemplates the dismissal by society of those in the lower class deemed “worthless”. The police don’t share Kaede’s concern. Those closest to her insist Harada has left her. Shot in cold blues and dreary greys within musty atmospheres, the grim truth of the world weighs heavy at the center of Missing. Life isn’t always beautiful. Death is even uglier. But feeling as if your life has no value? That’s the worst thing of all. Katayama pulls the audience into this upsetting world of Harada and the others with a suffocating absence of sound. During the most difficult moments, there is no music. Only the empty noise of the lust for life missing from the film’s central characters.
While the film’s first half plays more like a traditional crime thriller, it’s the second half where Missing takes a dark and twisted turn thanks to its killer. Terumi is one of the more interesting villains I’ve seen in years, with a sinister performance from Shimizu that makes your blood curdle. Believing that life lacks beauty, Terumi has found what he thinks is his purpose in assisting others with suicide. Except, that’s a bunch of BS, and he knows it. Shimizu’s character is a cold-blooded murderer, as demonstrated in a few gory sequences that see the actor smoothly transition from oddly charming to soulless in an instant. Shimizu has that Patrick Bateman presence, able to present emotion while giving off the vibe that he feels nothing at all. Throw in lines like “I don’t like girls who move,” and Missing has one chilling killer. Yet, Katayama still manages to create some semblance of empathy for this monster in small moments such as Terumi eating a fresh orange, presented with such magic that it’s clear that orange is one of the few pleasures in an otherwise miserable life.
A character drama wrapped around themes of suicide, murder, and those personal last few moments before death in which we discover what life really means to us, Missing is far from what I would call a pleasant experience. Watching this film hurts. It slices into your soul. But it’s also undeniably captivating, moving, and even beautiful at times. Katayama explores what we’re willing to do to feel alive, while also demonstrating that life itself is fleeting. It is precious. It is worthwhile. Sometimes we can’t see that until we stop searching for the meaning of it all and just live.
Katayama’s film is at one time a crime thriller, a disturbing serial killer study, and a devastating drama. It defies genre, the way some of the best stories do. It can be frustrating that the narrative plays out in three separate parts that force the other characters to disappear somewhat, but that’s only because each is so captivating that the audience craves more of them. A profound, sad film that discovers a soul within even the worst people, Missing is the reason I love cinema. Not for the faint of heart, Katayama’s film is an emotional experience that’ll have you in tears and feeling alive.
Missing arrives on VOD November 18th from Dark Star Pictures and Bloody Disgusting.
By Matt Konopka