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a girl missing review
A woman's life falls apart when her nephew commits a heinous crime.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Kôji Fukada

Starring: Mariko Tsutsui, Mikako Ichikawa, Sosuke Ikematsu, Hisako Ookata, Mitsuru Fukikoshi , Miyu Ogawa

a girl missing poster

Watching a Kôji Fukada movie is an emotional experience akin to being allowed to play with a puppy for an hour before watching someone break its neck. Like his previous film, 2016's disturbing masterwork Harmonium, the Japanese writer/director's latest, A Girl Missing, introduces us to a bunch of people whom we grow to like, only for Fukada to inflict a horrific set of circumstances upon them, like some devilish toddler setting ants alight with a magnifying glass.

As with Harmonium, the person whose world is turned most upside down is played by the brilliant actress Mariko Tsutsui. She possesses an almost unmatched ability to elicit our sympathy while simultaneously terrifying us, much like Anthony Perkins in his signature role of Norman Bates. Those are two qualities essential to her portrayal of Fukada's put-upon protagonist, Ichiko, a fifty-something home help nurse whose life is beginning to fall into place - she's happy in her job and has recently gotten engaged to a kindly doctor - only to be shattered by events beyond her control, but with which she is cruelly and unfairly associated.

a girl missing review

When we meet Ichiko first she's visiting a hair salon, where she gets a sexy new brown-dyed 'do from handsome young hairdresser Kazumichi (Sôsuke Ikematsu), whom she has requested by name. Ichiko claims she picked the young man because he shares the same name as her late husband, but we can tell from her shifty manner that something is afoot and she may have ulterior motives for seeking out Kazumichi.

[ READ MORE: First Look Review - The Forgiven ]

Ichiko's hairstyle becomes an important tool for Fukada, as he uses it to distinguish which timeline any given scene is playing out in. As Ichiko ingratiates herself into Kazumichi's life, we also flashback to the events leading up to her receiving that haircut. Ichiko is friendly with the granddaughters of one of her elderly patients, high schooler Saki (Miyu Ogawa) and college-aged Motoko (Mikako Ichikawa), who have adopted her as something of a surrogate aunt figure. While helping them with their studies in a local café, Ichiko bumps into her teenage nephew, Tatsuo (Ren Sudo). The next morning when she arrives at Saki and Motoko's home, she is shocked to learn that the former never returned home after their study session, and she's even more alarmed a couple of days later when the police find Saki, having been abducted by Tatsuo.

a girl missing review

Initially wishing to come clean about her association with Tatsuo, Ichiko is warned off doing so by Motoko, who fears her mother will dismiss her from her duties. Ichiko keeps quiet, failing to tell her employers or her fiancé about her relation to Tatsuo. Their mutual secret sees Ichiko and Motoko bond, but the former is clueless to the attraction the latter is developing towards her, and when Motoko learns of Ichiko's engagement, she strikes out in a way that tears Ichiko's world apart.

As with Harmonium, the first half of Fukada's new film might be mistaken for a work by his compatriots Hirokazu Kore-eda or Naomi Kawase, a beautifully observed drama about a group of people we quickly warm to. Once the rug has been pulled out from under them, we're into something approaching Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier territory, as Ichiko is mentally probed, prodded and punished to such a degree that some viewers may not be able to make it to the film's end.

[ READ MORE: New Release Review - Nitram ]

In a perfect world, Ichiko's relationship to the abductor shouldn't be anything for her to be ashamed of, but we live in an increasingly judgemental world where guilt by association is stirred by a hungry media. A fake news story is published in a tabloid claiming Ichiko played a complicit role in Saki's abduction, even though the police suspect no such thing.

a girl missing review

The brilliance of Fukada is how even though our sympathies lie with Ichiko as a victim of a rabid media mob, we're not entirely sure whether she genuinely is innocent. Fukada removes the lid we keep on our simmering pot of prejudices by doling out little details that expose Ichiko as a bit of an oddball who likes to bark at dogs from her window and confesses to Motoko a story of sexual curiosity which will ultimately be weaponised against her. Does someone's odd behaviour mark them down as a potential criminal? Of course not, but such an idea has been ingrained in both society and storytelling for centuries, and even the most liberal minded among us can still fall into the trap of contemplating such nonsense.

As the timeline of Ichiko's May-to-December courtship of Kazumichi progresses, we begin to fear for the young man as it becomes clear he has been targeted by Ichiko for some form of revenge by association, an idea previously hinted at by Fukada in Harmonium. Thus, Tsutsui finds herself simultaneously playing both the film's heroine and villain, and whether we feel like giving her a hug (a scene in which her work colleagues learn of her association with the crime while she stands in a daze will have you wanting to reach into the screen and pluck her to safety) or running in terror from her (a dream sequence in which she imagines herself as a dog is one of the creepiest things I've seen in some time) depends a lot on which of those hairstyles she's sporting. It's testament to Tsutsui's abilities as a performer that we can find ourselves so conflicted.

A Girl Missing is on MUBI UK now.