Missing sometimes suffers from unfocused digressions, but it mostly coheres well by the end and marks Katayama as a director to follow.
Satoshi Harada (Jirô Satô) is a down-on-his-luck, severely depressed widower whose antics regularly embarrass his teenage daughter, Kaede (Aoi Itô). After she is forced to pick him up from a convenience store following his being caught shoplifting, he tells her that he saw a man (Hiroya Shimizu) whom he recognized as a suspected serial killer whose face has been prominently displayed on wanted posters all over town. While his daughter barely pays him any mind, the debt-ridden Satoshi becomes obsessed with finding the alleged criminal — mainly to pocket the three million yen being offered as a reward for turning him in. The next morning, Satoshi has vanished without a trace. More annoyed than concerned at first, Kaede reluctantly goes looking for him, but grows more desperate as she continues to run into dead ends. Seeing that someone signed themselves into work under her father’s name, she asks around for him and eventually comes across someone who claims to be Satoshi Harada. The man dismisses the daughter’s suspicions, saying the shared name must be a coincidence. Skeptical, she leaves the work site, but quickly deduces that the man is actually the murderer her father set out to find, and begins tracking him down herself.
Japanese director Shinzô Katayama’s second feature, Missing is heavily indebted to South Korea’s genre-adjacent filmmakers who have been garnering accolades all over the world. Having previously worked with that country’s most prominent director, Bong Joon-ho — he was an AD on 2009’s Mother — Katayama’s mystery thriller borrows liberally from Bong’s oeuvre, similarly blending contrasting tones, styles, and sensibilities. Much like the Oscar-winning director’s 2003 crime drama Memories of Murder, Missing gets a lot of mileage out of its moments of levity — at one point, Kaeda’s classmate gets a nosebleed after she exposes her bare chest to him, a juvenile trope popular in manga and anime — even as the film continuously ratchets up both the human drama and the plot twists. Even an almost-murder scene is punctuated by the perpetrator’s pants being ripped off, forcing him to flee in his underwear.
Beyond the sometimes goofy tone, however, Missing does go for something substantial. For instance, flashbacks reveal a far more complicated truth about Satoshi’s relationship with the mysterious serial killer, and the death of Satoshi’s ailing wife Kimiko (Tôko Narushima) is revealed to be tied up in their nebulous dealings as well. It’s a narratively ambitious undertaking, especially for a sophomore film, so it’s perhaps forgivable that it occasionally over-exerts itself to make the increasingly convoluted twists land. Less forgivable is the film’s habitual peddling of caricature-esque family drama and serial killer clichés. Missing‘s first act, focused on Kaede’s search for her missing father, strikes an effective chord, shifting effortlessly between suspense, comedy, and tragedy, but the flashbacks of the second act are often bogged down by nihilistic sermonizing courtesy of the antagonist, or the sledgehammer emotionality of the husband-wife scenes. Whenever the film pulls back and focuses on quieter character moments, it works, Kaede’s subtle shifts from headstrong and confident to insecure and childlike being especially convincing. But whenever Missing feels compelled to essentially yell at its audience about what they’re supposed to feel, it, unfortunately, crosses over into the distinctly generic.
Powering through the occasional unevenness ends up being more than worth it, though, as Katayama regains his footing toward the end, and the film culminates with a ping pong match — a recurring theme throughout the film — between father and daughter, where secrets are revealed, old wounds are reopened, and sorrowful last words are exchanged across a minutes-long uninterrupted back-and-forth. When it all comes together, it comes together beautifully, and at its best, Missing crackles with life and raw emotion. Its unfocused digressions are regrettable, but there is a lot of promise to Katayama’s vision, and his second outing establishes him as a director who’s worth keeping an eye on.