I so loved Kôji Fukada’s Harmonium, so I was happy to see Criterion pick his 2019 film (really, a 2021 release for me) up. A Girl Missing is fragmented in a way that I like. It’s mysterious and elegant, and features some really stunning high-key photography from Ken’ichi Negishi.
I like a narrative that trusts its audience, and this film certainly does. How do we put time together? Plot-points notwithstanding, its by hair color, a mouth-relaxing technique, a crosscut at a zoo featuring two very different conversations about erections, and other small beats. The puzzle is a main part of the intrigue. Do films like this work if they’re entirely linear? The plot for A Girl Missing (which I’m intentionally leaving out here – watch the movie!) is good, but its structure elevates it. That falls right in line with my tastes, so I’m all in on Fukada’s film.
Very small SPOILERS here.
The only plot notes: Ichiko (Mariko Tsutsui) is a nurse who tutors sisters Saki (Miyu Ozawa) and Motoko (Mikako Ichikawa). A frightening incident sets an unstoppable spiraling chain of events into motion.
The performances are so great in this film, particularly between Ichiko and Motoko. They play off of one-another in such a range of ways, from casual and comic, to silent and tragic. They’re the heart of this film.
Fukada’s images are clean and precise. These beats reminded me a bit of Skolimowski’s Deep End in the huge pops of saturated color against an otherwise monochrome composition:
One of my favorite scenes of the film is with Ichiko and Motoko at a zoo. There’s the aforementioned parallel action, which is really nicely handled. You’d think a conversation about a rhino’s erection would be misplaced or absurdly comic. It somehow fits. But this whole sequence is full of wonder.
There’s this tracking shot where the characters are conspicuously out of focus and the background is sharp:
Is it to remind of the past? I don’t think it’s a mistake. The focus pulls us back there like a magnet. It asks us to look over their shoulders at something we can’t see – appropriate for a film that works so much on unseen events.
That is followed up by this frenzied, romantic sequence, which is just so great. The two women walk out of the zoo towards the street:
Motoko sees that the light is turning green and starts to run, leaving Ichiko behind. That second image above is so completely empty. Instinct would be to have the characters run into that shot for the cut, but that’s not Fukada’s point – he wants it to stay empty and lonely. It’s – like the focus mentioned above – as though there are two distinct worlds here. One populated by Ichiko and Motoko, and one concretely not. If they run into shot #2 above then suddenly it all becomes too linked and even. This is fragmented, awkward, isolated.
Cut out to this profile track in slow-motion. The only slow-motion in the film:
And then to Ichiko’s single as she runs. Her POV – or some approximation of it – of Motoko, who turns and looks back at her.
That last shot above. Talk about lonely. I love the evolution of this scene.
2-shot, head-on — Empty frame — 2-shot profile — Clean single — Clean single/POV — Lonely wide/POV
We move from togetherness (the first frames) to some kind of predictive separation (that empty frame…that’s what lies ahead, and it isn’t welcoming). The 2-shot in profile, that slo-mo shot is clearly the dividing line. Something’s happening that could be beautiful, could be dangerous, but most importantly…something is happening. Then Fukada separates them literally. Their two POVs aren’t comfortable. Ichiko’s POV of Motoko is of the back of her head; Motoko’s POV of Ichiko is far and disconnected.
This scene says so much. At this point in the film I didn’t know what was happening. But when this scene occurred I knew so much more about these two women, where they were in relation to one-another and how breathless they felt. This is a perfect scene.
There are many other great moments in A Girl Missing including three dream/nightmare scenes that involve dogs, childhood, and water, respectively, but all of which are so much more than those brief descriptions.
I also really liked this moment where Motoko waits for Ichiko at a distance. Ichiko is surrounded by children, which is appropriate to the theme and plot. It’s a patient shot, where the camera is exactly the correct height and position (kids’ heads always in, Motoko always at the top of frame). And there’s great color between the yellow and blue, separated by a field of green:
Preparations To Be Together For An Unknown Period Of Time
Lili Horvát’s film is romantic and mysterious. It reminds me a bit of La Moustache that way. I certainly also thought of The Headless Woman. Natasa Stork plays Vizy Márta, a brain surgeon who is convinced that her Hungarian colleague Drexler János (Viktor Bodó) is the same man that she met in a conference in the US, had something like a tryst, and planned to meet back in Budapest. He seems to think otherwise.
Small SPOILERS below.
Preparations has a great mood. There’s a lot of play with reality and the imagined, and what seems to me to be a very unexpected How They Get There (Spike Jonze’s short) reference.
I have two favorite parts of the film. One is a sudden and unexpected perspective switch from Márta to János. It seems like things are settling and that reality has superseded the dream (nightmare?), so it works well. It’s funny how much a change in perspective can give us a newfound sense of confidence or otherwise.
There’s also the ending, which is absurdist and enigmatic. János leaves Márta at her flat. Movers bring huge speakers out of the truck and hoist one up into the air in order to get it through the window. Márta finds herself alone (was János ever there?). She looks up at the precariously swinging piece of equipment. Things hang in the balance, quite literally. It’s an uneasy final image and that’s the point. It’s a great example of how something can work metaphorically – if you were to see that image on its own it would seem dangerous and as though it can come crashing down at any moment. That’s the same as Márta’s reality. It’s a hell of a final shot.