How much our lives can get destroyed just by plain coincidence or the particularly bad string of coincidences? It is an ages-long philosophical question that has been treated in movies practically from the beginning. Japanese auteur Koji Fukada, however, does not take the usual path to tell this kind of story. It is not a mystery or a thriller, it is a psychological drama focused on one singular character in the midst of the turmoil. “A Girl Missing” premiered in Locarno and we caught it at Viennale.
The character here is Ichiko (Mariko Tsutsui, who worked before with Fukada in his best-known film Harmonium three years ago), whom we meet as Risa Uchida, a widow looking for a change in her life. She says that directly to her hairdresser Kazumichi (Ikematsu Sosuke), explaining that she chose him because of his last name he shares with her late husband. The two of them commence a friendly relationship that might turn into something more romantic, but there is something off about it. It is not the age difference, it is Risa / Ichiko, her habits on spying on the neighbouring apartment from her, mildly put, minimalist home, and the secret she harbors.
In her previous life, Ichiko was a nurse in a hospital, with a doctor-fiancé (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) and a side job of taking care of an elderly artist Toko Oishi (Hisako Ookata) at her home, where she bonded with her grand-daughters, older Motoko (Mikako Ichikawa) and younger Saki (Miyu Ogawa). It might not be a glamorous life, but she enjoyed it. Well, until the moment when Saki went missing for several days and came back. It turns out she was abducted by Ichiko’s nephew (Ren Sudo) and her “part”was introducing the two during a purely random encounter. Soon enough, the blood-thirsty tabloids and sensationalist TV reporters start breathing on her neck, and she loses the trust of Oishi family and her co-workers, essentially denying her right to work…
The first thing that comes to the eye is how the two separate timelines, told parallelly, are hard to distinguish from one another. They both seem drab in colour, emotion and set design, and only when Fukada masterfully interconnects them at the same place (the city zoo) and with the same story too unusual to be spoiled here happening at the very moment in one timeline and resurfacing as a memory in the other, we get the whole picture. Both the design and the elaborate narrative device serve the purpose very well in portraying Ichiko’s state of mind. In retrospective, the director does the same throughout the film, carefully planting the leads and the red herrings, but with no intention to score some easy points.
The trouble is, however, that the peeling of layers and the mystery of Ichiko’s intentions in the latter timeline lacks some deeper insights. Simply, she experienced some bad luck, she made some bad decisions, but she remained passive at crucial situations, never even trying to explain herself. So the revenge she tries to serve cold is ethically dubious because the targets she aims for are not those who primarily made her life hell at first place, though they have also made their decisions that were unjust.
Mariko Tsutsui, however, is a pure joy to watch. Her character is enigmatic, but in a seemingly plain, realistic way thanks to her interpretation. He never misses a tone and convincingly holds the whole film together. The rest of the cast complement her with their performances and that proves to be crucial for the life-like quality of the film. Paired with Koji Fukada’s interesting storytelling and strictly directorial solutions, it makes “A Girl Missing” a compulsory watch for the audience interested in Japanese arthouse cinema.