The intriguing ambiguity suffusing Kôji Fukada’s “Harmonium” returns to a certain degree in “A Girl Missing,” but this time the writer-director neglects to reinforce onscreen relationships, resulting in a disappointing and unmoving drama of how a good woman’s life is shattered by keeping quiet. Thankfully, actress Mariko Tsutsui, who played the wife in “Harmonium,” exudes an intriguing off-kilter combination of sympathy and mystery as a visiting nurse whose world is changed drastically when her nephew abducts a girl she’s been mentoring, yet unfortunately the lack of script support undercuts audience involvement far more than the parallel timelines. Fukada’s reputation on the festival circuit guarantees a certain amount of play but is unlikely to win the director new fans.
An excellent opening ramps up expectations through a gratifying combination of confident filmmaking and skilled performances, playing on the potential for intimacy between a hairdresser and a first-time client. The woman, identifying herself as Risa Uchida (Tsutsui), clearly has her reason for wanting Kazumichi Yoneda (Sosuke Ikematsu) to cut her hair, and it’s not the explanation she tells him; only much later does her motivation become clear. What also might not be immediately clear to audiences who aren’t paying close attention to hair styles is that two timelines are on a parallel track, one with the woman calling herself Ms. Uchida, and the other where she uses her real name, Ichiko Shirakawa.
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Ichiko is a visiting nurse whose in-home care for elderly artist Tôko Oishi (Hisako Ohkata) has made her a favorite of the family, especially with Tôko’s two granddaughters, the troubled, enigmatic Motoko (Mikako Ichikawa) and the younger, carefree Saki (Miyu Ogawa). Life is pretty good: Ichiko has a pleasant relationship with her nurse colleagues, she enjoys her work, and she’s engaged to Dr. Totsuka (Mitsuru Fukikoshi). Then Saki disappears and is found one week later seemingly unharmed, with Ichiko’s nephew Tatsuo (Ren Sudo) arrested for abduction. She feels responsible, having introduced the two by chance, yet Motoko tells her not to mention her connection to the accused, as it would jeopardize her presence in the family fold.
Motoko’s feelings for Ichiko are clearly far deeper than those for her boyfriend, the hairdresser Kazumichi, though she never acts on these desires apart from trying to ensure the nurse continues to come daily to the house. Word gets out however about Ichiko’s relationship to Tatsuo, thanks to a sensationalist article in a sleazy paper, and everything starts to crumble rapidly. Even before then, her motivations for taking on another identity and worming her way into Kazumichi’s life in the later timeline have become pretty clear.
Far less evident is any genuine connection between Motoko and Kazumichi, or Ichiko and Dr. Totsuka. In fact, the chemistry between these two supposed couples is so entirely absent that there’s no emotional investment from the viewer, so when everything in Ichiko’s life goes south, it’s impossible to muster much sympathy for at least this part of her woes. The unstated yet unmistakable same-sex attraction Motoko feels for Ichiko adds an interesting note that Fukada undercuts by making the young woman a cypher whose brooding intensity never connects with Kazumichi’s open appeal nor the nurse’s straightforward mien.
Equally problematic is how the script makes a media circus out of Ichiko’s connection to the abduction: Had there really been anything more than a chance association, she would have been put on trial as an accessory. Instead, Fukada has the nurse hounded by a pack of uniformly ravenous journalists in several far-fetched scenes. The film’s Japanese title, “Yokogao,” means “side profile,” a subtle acknowledgment of the difficulties of capturing any complex person or relationship head-on, yet the script’s inability to believably conjure a full life for the characters, even with welcome ambiguity, makes “A Girl Missing” an unsatisfying experience.
That can’t be said for Tsutsui’s multifaceted performance, offering far more depth than what she’s given in the story. Even in her happy days, Ichiko gives off something uncertain beneath the friendly exterior, which is why the fact that she cracks following the accusations isn’t beyond reason — yet what is the point of requiring her to get on all fours and act like a dog? Visuals by Fukada’s regular DP Kenichi Negishi are coolly formal, though a match cut between nasty paparazzi flashbulbs and disco strobe lights is surprisingly clumsy.