A Girl Missing

A nurse (Mariko Tsutsui) is wracked with guilt for her inadvertent role in a kidnapping in "A Missing Girl."

If Japanese director Koji Fukada aims to confound the viewer with his new film, “A Girl Missing,” all I can say is, “mission accomplished.” It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out what was going on in the film, which is the latest movie in the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s Spotlight Cinema series.

Normally, I love so-called “puzzle box” movies like this that you're invited to solve while you're watching. But this time around, it was aggravating that the film takes such a complicated, circuitous route to tell its story. Its cryptic nature robs the film of its emotional power, despite a powerful lead performance from Mariko Tsutsui. Which I thought was TWO lead performances, which lets you know how thoroughly I misunderstood this movie at first.

Museum members can watch it for free for one week starting at 7 p.m. Wednesday, while non-museum members can rent it for a fee.

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Tsutsui first appears as the flirty middle-aged Risa, whose attempts to hit on her hairdresser (Sosuke Ikematsu) are embarrassingly forward. The more we learn about Risa, the odder she seems. She lives alone in an unkempt apartment, spying through the window on her neighbors (including the hairdresser), and at one point she drops on all fours and barks like a dog.

In a separate, alternating storyline, Tsutsui plays Ichiko, a kindly nurse who tends to an elderly woman and is friendly with her patients’ two granddaughters, a cheerful teenager named Saki (Miyu Ogawa) and a shy college student named Motoko (Mikako Ichikawa). Motoko, in particular, dotes on Ichiko in ways that may be more than friendly.

Ichiko’s bond with the family is severely tested when Ichiko’s troubled nephew Tatsuo (Ren Sudo) kidnaps Saki after Ichiko introduces the two to each other. Saki is later found unharmed and Tatsuo is arrested, and the film seems strangely uninterested in the missing-girl subplot, particularly since it’s called “A Missing Girl.” Instead, the focus is on Ichiko, wracked with guilt for introducing the two, and fearful that she’ll be fired if Saki’s mother finds out.

For the longest time, I thought Ichiko and Risa were twin sisters both played by Tsutsui. But it turns out that they’re actually the same person, and the Risa storyline is happening several weeks after the Ichiko storyline. The narrative thrust of “A Girl Missing” seems to be finding out what happened to the empathetic Ichiko to turn her into the unhinged Risa.

What happens is a lot of hard-to-believe plot machinations that undermine the realistic, understated performances of Tsutsui and the cool, detached tone of the film. Many of the supporting characters serve only as narrative devices designed to maneuver Ichiko/Risa from A to B. And Fukada makes no attempts, visual or otherwise, to distinguish between the two timelines.

While Tsutsui’s performances are each engaging on their own, I never bought that this was the same person, so completely transformed from one to the other in a matter of weeks. Once things finally clicked into place, the effect wasn’t particularly satisfying, because the puzzle pieces had been so bent and twisted to get them to fit together.