Missing aka Missing Woman (Missing: Sarajin Yeoja)
Korea (2016) Dir. Lee Eon-hee
Trust. It’s a very important commodity in life that can make or break a relationship. If it is broken or abused, the consequences can be devastating. Lee Eon-hee’s fraught drama begins like a horrific kidnap case but in fact reveals itself to be a scathing critique on the subject of trust whilst holding Korea accountable for its treatment of immigrant workers.
Lee Ji-Sun (Uhm Ji-Won) is so overworked in her job with a PR company that she has little time to spend with her one year old daughter Da-eun (Seo Ha-nui), forcing her to leave Da-eun in the care of her Chinese-Korean nanny Han-mae (Gong Hyo-jin). This works against Ji-Sun who is in the midst of a bitter custody case with her ex-husband, physician Jang Jin-hyuk (Ko Joon).
After one particularly stressful day, Ji-Sun returns home to find neither Da-eun nor Han-mae there. Initially, Ji-Sun assumes that they are with her ex-mother-in-law (Gil Hae-yeon), who is more interested in having Da-eun than her son is, but this isn’t the case. When two days pass, Ji-Sun informs the police who refuse to believe her so she takes matters into her own hands, gradually learning the truth about Han-mae.
I imagine any working parent of a newborn baby with a nanny in their employ watching this film would become very paranoid about the veracity of their childminder, which I doubt was Lee Eon-hee’s intention. The deeper message, as alluded to above, is how Korean society treats non-native and Lee arguably could have been more direct and made this her primary cause but at least she is guaranteed a wider, captive audience.
The impressive box office for Missing would corroborate this but did the message get through? With the main kidnap story being so emotionally draining for both cast and audience, perhaps it might have not have hit its target as accurately with everyone, but it fires enough shots to at least cause the odd flesh wound even to the less observant.
Lee’s first plan of action is to ensure we are fully supportive of Ji-Sun, which isn’t difficult with the demands of a baby she hardly gets to see and a snotty male boss who openly laments hiring new mothers because he “pays them then they put their babies first”. Charming – although Lee doesn’t exactly paint many men in the film in much glory, setting them up as greater antagonists than Han-mae.
Via flashbacks, we learn Ji-Sun’s previous nanny, also Chinese, actually injured baby Da-eun, so she was happy when Han-mae was introduced to her by a neighbour’s nanny and Han-mae’s aunt. While her lack of fluency in Korean was an initial concern, Han-mae’s lullaby singing proved an effective tonic for Da-eun’s moods, and the baby took to her new nanny quite quickly.
Yet Jin-hyuk’s mother is keen to play dirty to win custody; Ji-Sun had been legally ordered to hand Da-eun over to them, which she ignored, so the sudden disappearance of nanny and baby was deemed by them a deliberate act of obfuscation on Ji-Sun’s part – an accusation that he sued when Ji-Sun went to the police following a fruitless ransom payoff to an anonymous male caller.
With no female police officers in sight, the lack of empathy shown towards Ji-Sun is perhaps a little too cold and ham fisted in what is another in a long line of cinematic digs at the Korean police force. Whether they deserve it or not I can’t say but given Korea is a patriarchy maybe it isn’t that much of a stretch. It is only when Ji-Sun begins her own investigation after this callous reception that the police follow her lead and finally uncovers enough evidence to take this seriously.
The plot stays fairly within the crime thriller conventions in retracing Han-mae’s steps, revealing a lurid existence with different identities, each one leading to a darker stage of her history. But as the flashbacks progress, the immigrant issue is finally raised and the humble beginnings of Han-mae as a shy Chinese-Korean with limited language skills are giving a piecemeal airing, in a rare instance of a non-chronological order working to its advantage.
Again, having no point of reference to question its validity I can only assume the depiction of the treatment Han-mae received has a foundation in reality and if so, this is a sobering and shameful assessment being portrayed here. It is borderline racism really not to mention the abuse of trust discussed at the start of this review, going beyond the ignorance of the trailer park to smarmy pen-pushing jobsworths at the hospital in a truly disgraceful scene I hope isn’t a true reflection of Korean healthcare bureaucracy.
Once all the fragmented pieces of the story finally converge in the final act, there is a sharp change in our perspective and sympathies as both women are essentially shown to be products of circumstance as victims of a male dominated society. The staging of the scene reverts to type, milking the drama to give mainstream audiences a suspenseful, tear-jerking ending, with an enigmatic flourish for that poignant touch.
Looking at it objectively, it is the right denouement for the target audience; subjectively, such ostentation wasn’t necessary given the sheer force of the lead performances. For Uhm Ji-Won, this was probably another day at the office, not meant in a derogatory way or to undermine the raw torture she conveys as Ji-Son. Gong Hyo-jin is known for her kooky comedy roles, this departure as Han-mae revealing her to be a credible dramatic actress.
I suppose the alternate title Missing Woman could be an ironic reference to the paucity of sympathetic females for the two leads to rely on, but Lee Eon-hee has given us two issues to think about in this well paced, taut, emotional thriller. It’s hard to tell however if it is a rallying cry for feminism or just a tad too misandrous for its own good, but the political messages bear heeding.