February 1, 2023

By Diana Cheng
AAP Film & Arts Writer

Image Credit: Courtesy of TIFF

Japanese director Kôji Fukada’s “A Girl Missing” has its North American Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) on September 5, the opening of the 10-day event. Fukada’s suspenseful handling is prominent in his new work, three years after he brought out “Harmonium”, a story about a family in turmoil.

With “A Girl Missing”, Fukada has surpassed himself in digging deep into a character study depicting how a tender psyche is shattered by the court of public opinion; an innocent victim having no course for appeal is turned into a bitter spirit entrenched in revenge.

Ichiko (Mariko Tsutsui) is a home care nurse for the cancer-stricken grandmother in the three-generation Oishos household. Not only is Ichiko attentive and caring, she has gained the hearts of the two granddaughters, Motoko (Mikako Ichikawa) and Saki (Miyu Ogawa), high schoolers getting homework help from Ichiko. In his subtle way, director Fukada lets us know, strategically, that Motoko harbors a deep-set crush on Ichiko.

After one tutoring session in a café, Saki leaves for cram school and doesn’t return home that night. Saki’s missing throws the Oisho family in turmoil. A few days later she is found, safe and unharmed. Subsequently, the culprit is apprehended. A traumatic episode seems to have found closure, but the aftershocks have just begun to hit hard on Ichiko.

This is where director Fukada deftly weaves in another storyline. We learn that the young man who has abducted Saki is related to Ichiko. Further, a little personal secret of Ichiko’s is revealed to Motoko on an outing. At the end of a hitherto pleasant girls’ day out, Motoko realizes Ichiko will be engaged soon to be married as she is picked up by her fiancé. While congratulatory on the surface, Motoko takes the news hard.

Fukada is especially detailed in his depiction of how the teenager’s burning jealousy leads to a misstep in judgement, exposing Ichiko with a harmful image in the news media. She is swarmed by reporters, has lost all privacy, her work and impending marriage destroyed. An innocent bystander has become the victim now. Further, the little secret she has revealed to Motoko during the outing becomes the incendiary leading to the demise of her reputation. Ichiko is now an ugly target in the court of public opinion. From a kind home care nurse, Ichiko is turned into a bitter and vengeful spirit towards Motoko.

Akin to his previous film “Harmonium” (2016), Fukada’s storytelling is suspenseful and nuanced. Here in “A Girl Missing”, his handling is even more high-strung and dramatic. The past and the present are juxtaposed, dreams and reality fused. In one scene, a Kafka-esque depiction of Ichiko turning into doglike behavior looks high-handed and uncomfortable to watch, but it works as a metaphor of her falling off the precipice of sanity into a psychotic meltdown.

Image Credit: Courtesy of TIFF

Harmonium’s Mariko Tsutsui is in top form delivering an intense and audacious portrayal of a twisted psyche as Ichiko. Mikako Ichikawa playing Motoko matches her performance. The interplay of the two is the asset in this character-driven psychological thriller. While mostly well handled by Fukada, the overall storytelling could make one feel too drawn-out. In the last scene, loud and intense music sweeps viewers to an unsettling and unresolved ending.

For the full program of TIFF 2019, schedule and tickets go to tiff.net

Contact Diana Cheng at [email protected] or visit at Twitter @Arti_Ripples or visit her blog Ripple Effects rippleeffects.reviews.

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