When reviewing a film from a culture you’re not very familiar with, occasionally you find yourself unsure whether you’re quite understanding what the filmmakers are trying to achieve. Are you watching something genuinely daring, or the cliches of a cinematic grammar you’re just unfamiliar with? Is the film pulling its punches, or are standards different in that market? Is this supposed to be funny, or what?
Watching ‘Missing’ I wasn’t entirely sure what kind of film it was supposed to be. I’ve only seen a few Korean movies in my time, so found it hard to know whether my main impression – that this was a film that didn’t know whether it was a serious drama or a piece of horror entertainment – was the result of me imposing Western genre expectations.
It’s certainly unpleasant viewing. Aging rural nutjob Pan-gon (Moon Sung-Keun) imprisons wannabe starlet Hyun-ah (Jeon Se-Hong) and submits her to degrading and violent treatment – disciplining her like a dog, more or less – to ensure her absolute, mainly sexual, submission. As Hyun-ah is broken down by this ordeal, her token attempts at resistance met by ever more horrific cruelty, her responsible older sister Hyun-jung (Choo Ja-Hyun) searches for her in the face of indifference from the authorities.
For most of the film ‘Missing’ plays as a cold, depressing drama. There’s no real tension to Hyun-ah’s degradation - we know awful things will happen to her, and they do, the camera panning away from any graphic detail or gore to focus on her traumatised responses, which somehow feels more voyeuristic than dwelling on the splatter, especially as there seems to be little attempt to engender any real audience empathy for Hyun-ah. The culture gap opens up again – am I supposed to be enjoying this, or are there cues for me sympathising with Hyun-ah’s character that I’m just don’t get as an English viewer?
My main response to ‘Missing’ was one of sinking, stultifying depression. It’s relentless in it’s portrayal of a world of lecherous and merciless men viewing young women as objects to be coveted and mistreated. There’s a drooling dog-breeder who openly leers at every female character, and even the sole likable male character, a young police officer, seems to be mainly helping Hyun-jung to try and impress her. While the misogyny may be closer to the surface than we’re used to, in this respect ‘Missing’ is universal in it’s themes of the mistreatment and objectification of women, and the trivialising of violence against them. Pan-gon is an exceptionally brutal and lurid example, but the type of man he represents is all too familiar and believable.
Any sense of social purpose, of feminist statement, feels undermined by the last act of the film. While the idea of a methodical psychopath being brought down by a series of coincidences - too many prying eyes arriving at once, unraveling his plans – is convincing, the action runaround that ensues is standard slasher flick stuff, with tense scrabbles for weapons and the like. Suddenly, after over an hour of steady, almost restrained unpleasantness, ‘Missing’ turns into just another horror movie, with multiple killings and blood splatter.
Is that western genre expectation imposed on a different culture’s idea of what constitutes horror or serious drama? I don’t know.
I do know that the portrayal of the two sisters – the doomed, shallow, overtly sexual woman and the sober, responsible ‘good girl’ who gets to fight back – was unpleasantly reminiscent of the moral universe of American slasher flicks, where a hatchet in the head is the punishment for promiscuity. ‘Missing’ just isn’t silly enough for that kind of dichotomy to not feel like a judgment on victims of violence, especially after Hyun-ah is portrayed as being so ditzy and unsympathetic prior to her abduction.
‘Missing’ is well-acted and directed, but I was left unsure of whether I’d just watched a coldly scathing portrayal of male violence against women or a tasteless, and for the most part extremely slow, horror film. Either way, I found it a cold, depressing and unpleasant experience, and can’t really recommend it.