South Korean film “Missing Woman” begins as a seemingly conventional mystery thriller and then reveals darker elements which later turn the story into a sort of social horror tale which is often frighteningly realistic to me and other South Korean audiences. At first, we fear for what can possibly happen to one of two main characters in the movie, and then we are also horrified and saddened to learn about the other character’s madness which is as stark as “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” (1992).
For Ji-seon (Eom Ji-won), Han-mae (Kong Hyo-jin) has been like a gift from heaven. Due to her demanding work schedule, Ji-seon is usually too busy to spend time with her baby daughter even after she returns to her apartment, and this certainly does not make her look that good in her ongoing custody battle with her ex-husband at the court.
Han-mae looks like a perfect babysitter any mother would hire without hesitation. When she was introduced to Ji-seon via the recommendation from some other babysitter working in the same apartment building, Ji-seon did not have much confidence on a Chinese woman who barely speaks Korean, but Han-mae quickly impressed Ji-seon with her effortless way of calming Ji-seon’s daughter, and Han-mae soon becomes indispensable to Ji-seon in many aspects.
When Ji-seon goes to work during one morning, everything looks fine and busy for her as usual except her daughter seems to have a cold, but then a strange thing happens. When Ji-seon comes back to her apartment during late evening, she is baffled to find that her daughter and Han-mae are not there. Mainly because she is too exhausted after another busy day, Ji-seon just assumes that they went to the hospital, but she does not hear anything from Han-mae even during the next day.
As Ji-seon gradually comes to realize that her daughter has been kidnapped, her situation only gets worse hour by hour. Everything she knows about Han-mae turns out to be false, and it is also revealed later that Han-mae is associated with some seedy people in the Chinatown area, who are not so willing to tell everything to Ji-seon for good reasons.
The first half of the movie steadily keeps its tension level high as pushing Ji-seon into her nightmarish circumstance, and Eom Ji-won, who previously appeared as one of the crucial supporting characters in “The Silenced” (2015), is believable in her increasingly neurotic performance. Although Ji-seon makes several unwise choices along the plot, Eom’s forthright acting lets us understand Ji-seon’s frantic state of mind at least, and we come to emphasize with Ji-seon’s terrible plight as watching her desperate search for any possible clue which may lead her to Han-mae and her daughter.
And we also come to reflect on how much Ji-seon has been pressured as a single working mother. She simply wants to go on her way independently for herself as well as her daughter, but the kidnapping incident painfully reminds her of how vulnerable and disadvantaged her social position is. While I am glad to see that more and more people in South Korea recognize women’s rights in these days, misogyny remains a serious problem in the South Korea society, and the movie has a number of cringe-inducing moments as observing how Ji-seon is unfairly treated by other characters. Due to her belated report to the police, the detectives in charge of the case are rather suspicious about Ji-seon, and so are Ji-seon’s ex-husband and his mother, who understandably suspect that Ji-seon conspired with her babysitter for not losing her custody. In case of Ji-seon’s direct boss, he is very inconsiderate in front of her, and his brief callous comment is probably not so different from what many working mothers in South Korea often hear at their workplace.
As Ji-seon manages to gather some clues during the second half, we get to know more about Han-mae along with Ji-seon, and that is where the movie enters another dark territory to chill the audiences. I am not going to tell you anything for avoiding spoilers, but I can tell you that Ji-seon finds herself getting to know and understand Han-mae more than expected – and that there are a few harrowing moments to strike you for their utter despair and desperation.
While I must point out that casting a South Korean actress as a Chinese character looks inherently problematic from the beginning, Kong Hyo-jin, who was unforgettable as the hilariously deranged heroine of “Crush and Blush” (2008), gives an effective performance which is somehow both chilling and poignant. What Han-mae committed is inexcusable to say the least, but we cannot help but feel sorry for her as her past is revealed bit by bit. There have been many poor foreign women coming to South Korea for better future during recent years, and Han-mae’s unjust ordeal reminds me of those horrific news reports on how some of them only found themselves exploited and mistreated in the end with no future for them at all.
It is pretty easy to guess what is really going on even before its half point, but “Missing Woman” has enough emotional ground to hold our attention, and that is why its unabashedly melodramatic climax works although we already know its inevitable destination. The director Lee Eon-hee, who also adapted the screen story by Hong Eue-mee, handles well the dark, uncomfortable aspects of the story, and her two talented performers ably carry the movie on their opposite positions.
2016 has been a wonderful year for South Korean movie audiences because there have been many distinctive female dramas and comedies such as “The Handmaiden” (2016) and “Queen of Walking” (2016). “Missing Woman” surely deserves to be mentioned along with these films, and I really hope its success will contribute to this welcoming change as well.