South Korean documentary film “Evaporated” is shrouded in somber desperation and frustration right from the beginning. Closely observing a father’s longtime search for his vanished daughter, the documentary calmly and sensitively observes that overwhelming psychological burden on not only him but also his other family members, and it also makes some subtle but powerful points on the serious failure of the social system in helping not only his family but also many other unfortunate families out there in the South Korean society.
The main human subject of the documentary is a middle-aged man named Choi Yong-jin, and the early part of the documentary shows us how he has still been looking for his vanished second daughter Joon-won, who was suddenly gone missing from a playground near her home during the afternoon of April 4th, 2000. As shown from their respective interviews, not only Choi but also his other family members still remember well when they belatedly came to realize Joon-won’s disappearance around the following evening, and that was the beginning of a very long nightmare which is still hovering over their lives even at this point.
Of course, once it was apparent that something terrible might have happened to Joon-won, her father instantly reported to the police, and this case was soon widely reported on the media, but the police as well as her father could not find anything helpful for the following investigation. During next several years, Choi and his family had frequently received heaps of phone calls from here and there, but many of them turned out to be merely mean frank calls, and that surely broke their heart more.
Although the hope of finding his missing daughter has been decreased year by year, Choi has never given up his private investigation as reflected by his several small old notebooks full of clues and tips he managed to gather during more than 10 years. He still believes that he may discover something important among these rather unreliable pieces of information, and the documentary patiently follows his recent searches during last several years. Via an unexpected anonymous phone call, he recently came across another small possibility of finding Joon-won, and we see him visiting some island located around the southwestern coast of South Korea more than once. He diligently asks here and there around the island for more possible clues, but he is only reminded of how much time has passed since his daughter’s missing, so he comes to explore some other possibilities in the meantime.
However, those other possibilities do not lead him to anywhere either. At one point, Choi comes to wonder whether his missing daughter got herself unluckily involved with some juvenile delinquents in their neighborhood in Seoul, so he subsequently attempts to delve into this possibility for a while, but, not so surprisingly, he soon finds himself reaching to a dead end again, while still having no idea on what really happened to his daughter.
At least, there comes an unexpected help from the police around 2017. The detective newly assigned to the case seems to be really interested in helping Choi, and he has a very plausible theory on what happened to Choi’s missing daughter. In the detective’s theory, Choi’s missing daughter might be kidnapped for being raised up as somebody else’s daughter, and all he and his colleagues will have to do is doing some extensive search on a bunch of dubious birth records in Seoul and other cities.
However, this approach also does not produce much result, and Choi becomes quietly frustrated again. He surely understands that the detective and other cops have tried their best, and he does appreciate their efforts, but their efforts are bound to be discarded away when some other detectives come to take over the case later. He will keep trying as before, but he remains isolated without much support in his ongoing search, and there is a small quiet but harrowing moment later in the documentary as he comes to let out a bit of his longtime pain and frustration in front of the camera.
Meanwhile, the documentary also observes how Choi’s other family members have been damaged and devastated as much as him. His wife, who is not shown to us much throughout the documentary, left him a long time ago because she could not stand the seemingly endless pain and suffocation in her family anymore, and his two other daughters have been dealing with each own emotional scars from Joon-won’s disappearance for years. While Joon-won’s younger sister Joon-hyeon, who was only a little baby at that time, was less affected by Joon-won’s disappearance than her other family members in comparison, Joon-won’s older sister Joon-seon has struggled a lot with lots of anxiety and depression, and, though they are still living together in their old shabby apartment, she and her father have been quite estranged from each other as reflected by a number of revealing shots captured from their melancholic daily life.
As firmly sticking to its restrained attitude, “Evaporated” continues to engage us with many achingly bleak moments observed from its main human subjects, and director Kim Sung-min, who willingly spent no less than 6 years for financing and shooting the documentary, did a commendable job of never letting his documentary fall into cheap sensationalism or sentimentalism. Yes, this is a rather depressing experience to say the least, but its haunting last scene will linger on your mind for a while, and you may come to reflect more on its quiet but urgent social message.