Taiwanese thesp Lee Kang-sheng moves behind the camera to OK, if predictable, results with "The Missing." Another minimalist parable of loneliness, alienation and emotional trauma from the island's near-extinct film industry, pic is sure to be ever present on the festival circuit but largely AWOL from commercial theaters.

Taiwanese thesp Lee Kang-sheng, best known for his dour roles in the films of Tsai Ming-liang, moves behind the camera to OK, if predictable, results with “The Missing.” Yet another minimalist parable of loneliness, alienation and emotional trauma from the island’s near-extinct film industry, pic is sure to be ever present on the festival circuit but largely AWOL from commercial theaters, beyond territories like France. It shared top prize in the Pusan fest’s competitive New Currents section.

Lee’s movie was originally planned as the first half of a two-episode feature, “Never to Meet, Never to Part,” with Tsai helming the second seg. When the latter decided to expand his episode to feature length, with the new English title “Goodbye, Dragon Inn,” Lee did likewise with his portion, also giving it a new Anglo moniker. Like Tsai’s movie, “The Missing” could be cut back to a 50-minute short feature simply by halving each take, without losing anything.

Though Lee’s film, refreshingly, has none of the obsessive homo-eroticism that marks Tsai’s output, its style isn’t a million miles from his older mentor’s, with minimal dialogue, heavy allegory and long static takes that stretch way beyond their expiration date. Visually, however, the pic is lighter and less umbrous — Tsai Lite, in a good sense.

Twin plot strands, which finally come together in an ironic ending, focus on a teen, Hsiao-chieh (Chang Chea), looking for his missing grandfather (Miao Tien) and a grandmother (Lu Yi-ching) looking for her missing grandson. However, “plot” is only a relative term, as the aimless teen whiles away his days in a cybercafe and the frenetic granny bustles hither and yon looking for the kid she lost in a public park.

Both are disconnected from the real world. The teen plays war games on a computer while conversing in a chat-room about the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the granny seems on the outer edges of madness, visiting her late husband’s crematorium to seek advice from his spirit. Meanwhile, a “plague” (i.e. SARS) that is ravaging the region fells the cybercafe owner.

Though she looks, even with make-up, way too young for the part of the granny, Lu, who’s only in her 40s, at least gives the movie some momentum, blindly ignoring social conventions as she scurries around Taipei. Chang is a blank sheet of youthful anomie, while Miao is seen only briefly as the dotty grandfather who’s taken to filling up his apartment with torn newspapers.

Technical credits are clean. The combined Chinese titles of Lee and Tsai’s pics form a four-character phrase (“Bu jian bu san”) that roughly means “Don’t Leave Without Seeing Each Other.”

The Missing

Taiwan

Production

A HomeGreen Films production. (International sales: HomeGreen, Taipei/Paris.) Produced by Liang Hung-chih. Executive producer, Tsai Ming-liang. Directed, written by Lee Kang-sheng.

Crew

Camera (color), Liao Pen-jung; editor, Chen Sheng-chang; art director, Lue Li-chin; costume designer, Sun Huei-mei; sound (Dolby Digital), Tang Hsiang-chu; sound designer, Du Tuu-chih; assistant directors, Vivian Ming Chou, Vincent Wang. Reviewed at Pusan Film Festival (New Currents, competing), Oct. 9, 2003. Running time: 87 MIN.

With

Lu Yi-ching, Miao Tien, Chang Chea. (Mandarin dialogue)
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