Director: Mo Hong-jin
Writer: Mo Hong-jin
Producer: Kim Dae-Geun
Cast: Shim Eun-Kyung, Yoon Je-Moon, Kim Sung-Oh, Ahn Jae-Hong, Kim Won-Hae, Kim Hong-Fa, Oh Tae-Kyung
Running Time: 108 min.
By Paul Bramhall
There can be no doubt that 2016 was a big year for Korean cinema, with several of the industry’s most prominent talents returning to the screen. After their ventures into Hollywood, directors Park Chan-wook and Kim Ji-woon returned to home soil, releasing The Handmaiden and Age of Shadows to both critical and audience acclaim. Na Hong-jin also returned to the director’s chair, unleashing The Wailing after a 6 year absence. Then you have up and coming talents like Kim Seong-hoon, who followed up his 2013 breakthrough A Hard Day with the disaster flick Tunnel, not to mention Yeong Sang-ho’s Train to Busan, which became the number 1 highest grossing Korean movie outside of Korea in history.
With so much attention on the movies that Korea’s established talents have brought to the big screen, it’s understandable that some of the smaller productions have been overlooked. One such example is Missing You, which marks the directorial debut of Mo Hong-jin. Having previously written and produced Jeong Gil-yeong’s 2007 murder mystery Our Town, Hong-jin is also behind the script for this latest feature, and almost a decade later clearly felt confident enough to take on the directorial reigns as well.
While on paper, Missing You may sound like one of the many female-driven revenge thrillers that have become popular in Korean cinema recently, onscreen it plays out in such a way to make it stand out from the crowd. The story opens with an alleged serial killer, played by Kim Seong-oh (most recognizable as the brother who gets blown to pieces in The Man from Nowhere), standing trial as a serial killer. One of his alleged victims was a police officer, and the victim’s young daughter watches on tearfully in the courtroom. However, due to only having enough evidence to prove that Seong-oh is behind one of the murders, he receives the comparatively light sentence of 15 years. After the verdict is read, the daughter (played by child actress Han Seo-jin) silently walks backwards out of the room, while another cop, played by the ever reliable Yoon Je-moon, swears he’ll get enough evidence together to ensure Seong-oh gets the death penalty.
In the next scene, 15 years have passed, and as he leaves prison Seong-oh is greeted by a block of tofu being thrown into the back of his head by Je-moon. As a cultural note, it’s tradition in Korea that when someone leaves prison, the first thing they receive is a block of tofu. A similar scene can be witnessed in Park Chan wook’s Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. It has to be mentioned that the only indicator that 15 years have passed, is that the victims daughter from the courtroom is now played by Sim Eun-kyeong (who notably also had a special appearance in Train to Busan). So it’s safe to assume that (a) once Koreans hit adulthood, they age very slowly, and (b) Je-moon obviously didn’t gather any evidence in the last 15 years that would prove Seong-oh is guilty of the other murders.
In fairness, there’s are numerous elements of Missing You that don’t necessarily add up on closer inspection. Despite this though, Hong-jin keeps things moving at a steady pace, and there’s never a moment that as a viewer you’re not engaged with what’s going on onscreen. This comes down to a number of factors. The main element is that the mystery card is played very effectively. When Seong-oh is released, dead bodies soon start appearing again. However things are turned on their head, when it’s revealed that there are two other characters who could potentially be responsible for the killings. This not only results in the audience being kept on their toes, but in a smart example of script writing, none of the potential killers are also aware of each other, so each one of them, to varying degrees, is also left trying to figure out who exactly is behind the killings.
Furthermore, all three of the potential killers make for interesting characters. The script sometimes seems to play with almost making Seong-oh a sympathetic character, as he gets beaten up by police for murders he didn’t commit, before it swings around to remind us of his true identity. As an actor, he manages to be both strikingly gaunt and completely ripped at the same time, and one particular image of him standing shirtless in the bathtub, arm outstretched in front of him wielding a kitchen knife, will be one that remains for quite some time after the movie finishes. As a young adult, Eun-kyeong does an excellent job of portraying a character who appears to be a cheerful but simple minded cleaner, who’s been adopted by the local police station. However the more time we spend with her, the more we question if her cheerful demeanour is really just a front, as her apartment is revealed to have a wall covered in Post-It notes adorned with handwritten Nietzsche quotes, while news clippings related to the murders are pasted all over the floor.
The third party, a butcher played by Oh Tae-kyeong, serves to keep things interesting, especially as he’s also present in the opening courtroom scene, but to go into any further detail would result in spoiler territory. With that being said though, it brings me back around to my comment about not everything that takes place in Missing You necessarily standing up to a deeper scrutiny. Missing You is one of those movies were you can tell many scenes have likely been left on the cutting room floor, and rightly so, as it moves along at a perfect pace and never bores. However as a result, some narrative logic has arguably been lost, and audiences would be forgiven for questioning what exactly the relationship is between some of the characters.
Despite some gaps, or rather leaps, in storytelling, for me Missing You still hit the mark. Perhaps the biggest factor that works in its favour, is that Hong-Jino took the decision to not shy away from the gorier elements of the story. There are several scenes of graphic violence on display throughout the runtime, which hark back to the early days of the Korean new wave, when similar scenes populated the likes of Tell Me Something, and H. Stabbings are dished out, throats are slit, heads are cracked, and unlike so many other mid-budget Korean productions, which have a tendency to play out like extended TV movies, Hong-jin seems to embrace the bloodier side of the content, relishing the opportunity to put it on display. That’s not to say that the content is exploitative in any way, far from it, however it feels like a long time has passed since a director so unapologetically displayed the gorier side of such tales.
Hong-jin should also be credited with, despite the above flaws, on a purely visceral level keeping things refreshingly realistic. At one point Seong-oh is in pursuit of Eun-kyeong, and unlike so many similar movies, rather than indulging in an extended chase scene, he catches up with her in seconds. In normal filmmaking logic, she should have fallen over a few times, gotten back up, constantly been glancing over her shoulder, and still be some distance away from her pursuer. Not so here, as soon as Seong-oh breaks into a sprint, he’s on top of her in a moment. While all of these points can be easily passed off as of an aesthetic nature, which is true, it’s the fact that they’re so lacking in similar genre productions that makes Missing You such a welcome breath of fresh air.
Hong-jin has, whether intentionally or not, created a movie which has a consistently changing focus, which translates to ensuring that as an audience, our attention never wanders. Part police procedural (early in the movie we even get a scene dedicated to a new recruit, played by Ahn Jae-hong, that gives the impression proceedings are going to be told from his point of view – they’re not), part revenge thriller, part murder mystery. The genre hopping nature of the story, wrapped in a tightly knit narrative, ultimately results in a movie which is far from perfect, but at the same time is a title I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to fans of any of the above mentioned genres. Despite all of the narrative leaps, Missing You ends with a scene that satisfyingly concludes all that’s come before, and ensures I’ll be keeping an eye on whatever Hong-jin creates next.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 7/10