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(Movie Review) 'Missing': gritty story of motherhood and social ills

All Headlines 09:12 December 08, 2016

By Lee Haye-ah

SEOUL, Dec. 8 (Yonhap) -- Motherhood is a theme that is often confined to the relationship between a mother and her child. But in "Missing," director Lee Eon-hee places it in the context of some of the most disturbing social phenomena of our time to produce a gripping film buoyed by the stunning performance of its female cast.

In the movie, Ji-seon (Uhm Ji-won) is a middle-class divorcee struggling to keep her job and custody of her 1-year-old daughter. To relieve some of her burden, she hires a Chinese nanny, Han-mae (Kong Hyo-jin), to look after her child while she is at work. What appeared to be the perfect arrangement for all sides turns into a tragedy when the baby suddenly disappears, along with her nanny.

In telling the story, director Lee builds the suspense by weaving together Ji-seon's flashbacks, testimonies by various people who knew Han-mae and witness accounts. In the process, the audience is transported to some of the darkest corners of society to face some uncomfortable truths. For instance, Ji-seon learns that Han-mae was once married to a Korean husband -- a reference to the often unhappy interracial marriages between South Korean men and Southeast Asian women.

There is also heavy reference to South Koreans' negative perceptions of the growing Chinese community in the country, with scenes of the back alleys of a Chinatown, trade in human organs and Ji-seon falling victim to voice phishing.

But most of all, there is a glaring warning of the consequences of the insurmountable gap between the haves and have-nots as the twisted fate between Ji-seon and Han-mae unfolds.

This image shows the official poster for "Missing." (Yonhap)

The story can be hard to follow at times unless one pays close attention to the details. In one sequence of scenes, the only way to distinguish between the past and present is to notice the difference in Ji-seon's hairstyle.

Uhm delivers one of her best performances yet as the fragile-looking but strong-willed mother who will do everything in her power to find her child. Through bouts of panic and fear, a mother's anxiety manifests itself in the trembling of the actress's body and the faltering of her voice, not to mention the shaking of her teary eyes.

Kong is mysterious as a Chinese woman of few words. Han-mae's inability to speak Korean fluently propels Kong to speak volumes with just her facial expressions and movements until her frustrations eventually explode in bursts of emotion.

The overall tone of the movie is rightfully dark and ominous. But there are brief moments of peace and calm that nicely offset the grim atmosphere, such as when Han-mae sits in a playground under the yellow leaves of fall.

That contrast goes some way to show that few things in life are as monochrome as they may first seem. Motherly love is no exception, and Lee proves it in this riveting take.

"Missing" opened in local theaters on Nov. 30.


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