Lee Kang-sheng’s The Missing is a sad and haunting film which builds very slowly to an obscure symbolic ending, making you want to watch it again right away in order to view it in a different light. While not quite living up to the standard of the best work of Lee’s esteemed mentor Tsai Ming-liang, The Missing is an admirable debut.
In 2003, Tsai and his lead actor and on-screen alter-ego Lee set out to make two companion-piece short films, both of which ultimately evolved into features: Tsai’s Goodbye Dragon Inn and Lee’s The Missing. The Chinese titles of the two films, when put together, make a phrase which translates as “don’t depart until we see each other”. This sets the tone for two movies about two different forms of loss.
The Missing is a more overtly humanist piece than Goodbye Dragon Inn. It opens with a strangely disturbing scene shot through a fish tank, in which an old man (Miao Tien) appears to suffer some sort of subtle mental breakdown. From there we meet his teenage grandson (Chang Chea) who quickly proceeds to disappear from the narrative for quite some time while we are introduced to an apparently unrelated old woman (Lu Yi-ching), who is looking for her missing grandson. Later in the movie it becomes apparent that the grandfather from the opening scene has also disappeared. And that, without giving away the ending, is pretty much the whole story.
A large proportion of the movie is simply concerned with showing the old woman running around the city, searching for her grandson and tearfully pleading with strangers to help her. Lee films her panicked search in a series of very long, very wide takes which manage to convey both a detachment and an immediacy in their style: the mise-en-scene has the temporal property of real life experience, but it remains distanced and objective about the action. One jaw-dropping 10-minute take in a park is genuinely disturbing in both narrative and real terms in the way it captures the sheer physical demands of Lu’s performance. Indeed, it is the disturbing physicality of her role that is perhaps the most memorable thing about the film.
Meanwhile, the boy’s reaction to his grandfather’s disappearance is not so easy to read, nor as compelling to watch. He seems to descend into some kind of denial, or perhaps he doesn’t even care at all. He spends most of the movie playing video games in a computer arcade, and only really becomes an active character during the critical final minutes.
Unfortunately, the whole thing doesn’t work quite as well as it might. Lee has said that he expanded the role of the teenager when he and Tsai decided to make their movies feature length, and this is probably the root of the problem. The film feels like it should have been either the 60 minute length originally planned, or about two hours, rather than half way in between: the plotline involving the teenager seems like it needed to be given either equal weight to that of the grandmother, or pushed right back down.
These quibbles do not stop this from being quite a wonderful little movie. Lee has clearly inherited much of Tsai’s visual sensibility as well as his (until now) unique mix of elegiac tone and dry sense of humour. He may not pull all the strands together into an entirely satisfying work, but this is one hell of a good start to a career behind the camera.