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Movie Review
The Missing


Director: Lee Kang-sheng
Cast: Tien Miao, Chang Chea

here was a movie that came out last year called The Missing, a rather forgettable Ron Howard-directed picture that starred Cate Blanchett and Tommy Lee Jones. This is not that movie.

Taiwanese actor-director Lee Kang-sheng's film is a stranger and more interesting piece of cinema, though an English-language title isn't quite the only thing the two films share. The "missing" in both cases is a child (well, a three year-old boy in Lee's film, a teenage girl in Howard's). This is also, however, where the films diverge—radically. In Howard's movie, a beautiful young girl (Thirteen's Evan Rachel Wood) is kidnapped by an outsider band of Native Americans, and the film proceeds through the usual, predictable motions from there. Lee's film is downright alien to the sort of Hollywood formula that Howard relies on. In it, he contrasts a grandmother searching frantically across Taipei for her three year-old grandson, whom she had left alone in a park for just a few minutes while she used the restroom, with a young man trying to find his grandfather.

For his directorial debut, Lee has clearly taken very close notes from his mentor, Tsai Ming-liang (whose excellent Goodbye, Dragon Inn I wrote about several weeks ago in this space). Lee has always been Tsai's leading man of choice, and though—at least as far as credited work is concerned—Tsai serves only as executive producer here, it's practically impossible not to sense his presence in every frame of The Missing. In fact, had I not known otherwise going in, I could've easily been led to believe that this was some early, rarely-seen Tsai feature, from back before he had developed the level of technical mastery that he now seemingly displays so effortlessly. Not only does Lee mimic Tsai's general filmmaking style (albeit, a less aesthetically sophisticated version of it), but he even incorporates many of Tsai's unmistakable signature touches: There is the unpleasantly perverse in the form of an old woman hovering over a public toilet with a nasty case of diarrhea; people trying to communicate with dead relatives; a minimal plot with little character exposition constructed around static shots and long takes; even a scene involving a guy brushing his teeth while another guy uses the urinal!

To his chagrin, our hero discovers why it's called The Missing...

If Howard's Missing seemed like a condescendingly p.c. Searchers retread, Lee's feels like a remake of Tsai's What Time Is It There?, and its final scene leaves no room for arguments of mere coincidence. It's a shame, too, since Lee's film inadvertently pales in comparison to Tsai's masterpiece, though, he does admittedly come closer than Howard does to John Ford. The problem is that when every shot in a film directly echoes another's work, the results tend to be somewhat weightless and ultimately inconsequential.

To a lesser degree, I had the same complaint last year with Sofia Coppola's overpraised Lost in Translation; nearly everything of substance in the film seems lifted from L'Avventura or In the Mood for Love or Millennium Mambo, all vastly better films. Remove Antonioni, Wong, and Hou from the mix and what we're left with is a smugly misanthropic movie with some cheap jabs at Japanese culture. Subtract at least the most blatant techniques that Lee has borrowed from Tsai, and The Missing would make for a good short. It would run about 8 minutes.

By: Josh Timmermann

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Posted 08/05/2004 - 05:32:41 AM by JoshLove:
 I didn't think Ron Howard's Missing was bad at all, to be perfectly honest. I went into it quite skeptically cos of all the bad-to-lukewarm reviews I'd read, but I found it quite powerful actually, if not particuarly original or ground-breaking. Tommy Lee Jones was typically excellent, and Cate Blanchett was absolutely marvelous, can't say enough good things about her performance, I'm pretty sure she didn't get nominated for anything for this role but she should've.
Posted 08/05/2004 - 05:35:04 AM by JoshLove:
 Heh, maybe subconsciously I've just decided I can't badmouth Ron Howard anymore since he's blessed us with Arrested Development.
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