There are few filmmakers capable of changing their careers overnight. However, the arrival of Missing at Fantastic Fest 2022 may do just that for Shinzô Katayama. Missing lands at the festival as an explosive breakthrough. After working with Bong Joon Ho on a pair of films as his assistant director, Katayama made his own debut in 2018. The tight thriller provides him the showcase feature that may allow for his next project to pick up international attention. This is frustrating, as Missing showcases that Katayama is already one of our most promising directors.
Written by Katayama, Kazuhisa Kotera, and Ryô Takada, Missing tells a multipronged story of secrets, lies, and murder. A young girl Kaede (Aoi Itô), discovers her father has disappeared. The night before, her father Santoshi (Jiro Sato), tells Kaede he knows the whereabouts of a dangerous fugitive. When Santoshi goes missing, Kaede begins to realize the offhanded comment is linked to her father’s absence. Kaede begins to unravel the truth about her father’s secrets as she searches for her father. Despite warnings and threatening messages (supposedly from her father), Kaede discovers her family has become entangled in a darker story than she can possibly imagine.
Katayama and the writing team perfectly structure Missing to milk every ounce of tension out of the film. The actual structure sets up surprisingly deep elaborations and reframings of characters as we peel back the layers of the mystery. We watch them appear and disappear, and the context shifts with each reintroduction. Katayama imbues Missing with cues one would expect from Nolan. In fact, Missing‘s disregard for linear storytelling showcases a command of storytelling. This is more than simple parlor tricks, but instead impeccable craft. These devices infuse the story with emotional complexities and questionable morality. Combining unique storytelling with masterful plot delivery forces us to grapple with the constantly shifting perspectives. This literal tool within the context of the film takes on a metaphorical role for our characters, who begin to see the world and each other in vastly different lights.
Missing would suffer if it did not have the perfect cast. Luckily, the combined forces of Sato, Itô, and Hiroya Shimizu appear perfectly in tune with Katayama’s story. None of the performers overstays their welcome, while each commits to strange, if not upsetting, character ticks. They blend verbal and nonverbal nuances that become essential to understanding the journey. Sato and Shimizu craft chemistry that chills you to the bone. Yet when each goes their separate ways, they own the screen in moments of intense internal performance. Sato gels extremely well with Itô, which crescendos with one of the most unforgettable sequences of the year. They do not just play father and daughter. They make us believe their world ends and begins with the person across the scene from them.
Katayama and the editing team perfectly execute reveal after reveal. Right as you begin to guess where Missing is headed, Katayama throws a curve ball. A willingness to embrace the very dark elements of the story also opens every conceivable choice to the characters. In a way, this allows Missing to embrace the amorality of a Coen Brother film, even if the stakes are far less cartoonish. Missing never attempts to leash its villains and protagonists. Instead, Katayama places them in murky gray morality. He also forces his characters to live with their inadequacies and shortcomings. They are not given a mental pass as a character in the film. Placing us in their minds shapes our perspectives on their actions and recontextualizes the violence depicted on camera.
It should also be noted that Katayama’s penchant for darkness leads to some truly grotesque sequences. There’s creativity in the grotesque, but it places Missing firmly in the company of Seven or Memories of Murder. Whenever a film embraces the darker side of serial killing, it leaves the audience in an uncomfortable position. One should be prepared for upsetting sequences and actions, some of which will leave you questioning the purpose of such disturbing imagery.
Missing surprises at every turn, making for one of the best thrillers of 2022. With three great performances and excellent direction, it sneaks up on the audience. For Katayama, Missing should be an excellent opening chapter to a storied career. With a disturbing tale of melancholy already under his belt, it will be curious to see where he takes his career from here. One thing we know is that we will be there to see what rich text he will cook up next.