The Missing – Taiwan, 2003
Towards the beginning of Kang-sheng Lee’s The Missing, a three-year-old boy disappears. At the time of his disappearance, the child is at a park with his grandmother (Lu Yi-ching). She steps away for a moment, leaving him in the care a young girl probably only five years his senior. The girl, completely unaware of the seriousness of the situation, rather nonchalantly says something about the boy leaving with his grandfather and resumes playing on the bars. What follows is one of the more painful, heart-wrenching scenes I’ve seen in some time, as this poor woman frantically runs from person to person, from authority figure to authority figure, asking the same question: Have you seen my grandson? Many people simply ignore her; others repeat advice she’s already received – make an announcement, go to the police, ask those children over there. A few even chastise her from having left the child alone in the first place. Eventually the woman succumbs to her overwhelming grief, drops to the ground, and sobs.
Running parallel to the grandmother’s plight is that of a young high school student (Chang Chea) who seems to go through life in a daze. When he should be in school, he is instead sitting in a computer center shooting at virtual enemies and communicating with the only other person there through text messages. The boy is so transfixed by the virtual world that he doesn’t even react to signs that the man is in extreme physical pain and having trouble breathing. When the boy eventually goes home, he hardly even reacts to the shreds of newspaper that extend from his apartment all the way down the stairs and out the apartment door. He has seen it before, and he had grown desensitized to it. For a time, his connection to the grandmother is unclear, and viewers may be initially frustrated trying to figure out just who he is. It will not spoil anything to reveal that he is not the missing boy years later.
The film takes place during a time of transition for Taipei. The park the grandmother is in is still a work in progress, Taipei 101 has yet to be completed, and the people of Taiwan are dealing with the horrible specter of SARS, which haunted parts of Asia from November 2002 to July 2003. Perhaps this accounts for some of the disconnect we see in the film. It’s not that the people the grandmother meets don’t care, but rather that they are slow to respond emotionally. Much of the time, their first instinct is to ask a ton of repetitive questions or to try to avoid involvement entirely. The grandmother’s response is always the same: to keep running, as if scouring the city the following day will yield a more positive result than it did the day before. Viewers may find themselves wondering just how much time has transpired at certain points in the film. However, in this film, time is not necessarily linear, and what happens is an earlier scene may not be internalized until a later one. It is equally hard to say when the feeling of loss is hitting these characters and, in one case, whether it is hitting before or after tragedy has already struck. A case could be made for either interpretation.
The Missing was the directorial debut of Ming-Liang Tsai’s protégé and frequent leading man, Kang-sheng Lee. He has since directed two other films, 2007’s Help Me, Eros, a challenging film to say the least, and 2009’s Taipei 24H, which I have not seen. As a director, he seems rather skilled at filming quiet moments of desperation and using imagery to help viewers connect the individuals we see in front of us to the larger world surrounding these characters. I saw this clearly in the grandmother’s unsuccessful attempts to contact her son after her grandson goes missing and in the image of unwanted lunches hanging from the branches of a tree in a park – a rejection of the care that went into getting them in the first place. Also, like Tsai, Lee employs long sequences to drive home the often desperate situations of his leading characters, and he shoots many of these sequences from a distance, giving the audience the feeling that they are looking in on these characters from afar, as if they are practically spying on them. The technique is surprisingly effective.
In one of these moments, we witness the grandmother ask a young man to take her to see her husband, whom she intends to ask for help searching for the missing child. To our surprise, she is taken to the Taipei County Military Memorial. What follows is one of the most moving scenes in the film and a possible indirect reference to the legacy of SARS. As for those who question precisely what transpires in the scene, it is not a stretch to believe that when all earthly hope seems lost that someone will turn upward for assistance.
The Missing is a moving film that seems a tad bit too long, even at just 84 minutes, and yet those who stick with it will be rewarded in the end, for when the film finally connects its two storylines, it achieves a sense of both urgency and emotion that is quite involving. We feel for these characters. As for the ending, while some people will say it is open to interpretation, only one explanation seems completely plausible. The Missing is not a film in which a great deal happens. It is a film that is best felt, and as the film demonstrates time and time again, empathy may not be so easy to find anymore. (on DVD in Region 3)
*The Missing is in Mandarin and Taiwanese with English subtitles.