The cover art for this UK DVD release of 2009’s “Missing” -- CineAsia’s latest offering in the South Korean horror stakes -- prepares the viewer for apparently yet another onslaught of derivative ‘torture porn’ antics cast in the contemporary “SAW” style with its lurid depiction of a pretty young Asian girl, gagged and bound and spread-eagled on a grotty bed; it suggests we’re to be presented with the usual high-contrast, low wattage scenes of overwrought suspense drama, mixed with the inevitable effects-laden set-pieces of gory disembowelment, and probably innumerable other crimes against the human body as well. In some ways, the image this presents is not an inaccurate summery of the film’s content. What it doesn’t convey, though, is the manner in which this ripe brew of prolonged torture and degradation is to be served up: the film’s tone is radically different, with it harking back more to the style of American ‘70s exploitation drive-in cinema and early slasher pics rather than mimicking contemporary torture porn aesthetics with their particular penchant for colour desaturated imagery and extreme physical body horror.
“Missing” -- with its frequent, sudden, and sometimes awkward shifts of tone, flipping from camp comedy to uncomfortable voyeurism and from gruelling images of utter debasement to a sunny soap opera mode of aesthetics in a blink – recalls the memory of exploitation classics such as the original “I Spit on your Grave” and “Last House on the Left” – not necessarily showing us as much gore and causal bodily evisceration as audiences have come to expect from prolonged exposure to the recent ‘torture porn’ slew , but sharing instead those older films’ strangely flippant approach to the most appalling scenes of human suffering, and thereby ending up producing an disconcerting effect that is ultimately a great deal more disturbing somehow.
The opening scene sums up much about the film’s breezy approach to what is ultimately a rather off-colour subject matter (i.e. the act of imprisoning very pretty girls in a dank basement for months on end and making them undergo a serious vile and sexually humiliating practices before eventually grinding them up and feeding them to your chickens -- just so you know where we stand): a bumbling, country-bumpkin type (he breeds dogs, which he keeps in rows and rows of wire-mesh cages, we later learn) is seen exiting his rundown shack of a house, comically clutching at his groin and groaning while in pursuit of a bubbly, sexily-attired coffee delivery girl from the local village, as she yells abuse back at him and complains that ‘this place is full of weirdoes!’ This chirpy, likable, teenage female character returns frequently right the way through the film, and is ostensibly the rough equivalent of the comedy cops and the broadly played ‘retard’ character in “Last House on the Left” and “I Spit on your Grave” respectively. Whenever she appears, comedy and general light-heartedness are never that far behind.
Where director Kim Sung-Hong triumphs over his predecessors though is in his canny act of introducing this flippant tone from the very beginning and thereby lulling us into a false sense of security with it. Frankly, for the first ten minutes or so, there is little reason to suspect that we’re in for very much more than some rather mainstream fluff, with the kind of dubious ‘70s-style approach to sexual politics behind it that is content to portray the dog breeder’s sexual harassment of a girl half his age as a cause merely for nudge-nudge comedy and minor light relief. As though to conspire in this ruse, the cinematography of Jeong Han-Chul is bright and summery and vibrant, a million miles away from the colourless, washed out grey/green murk of the average contemporary torture porn flick.
But likable and feisty though the coffee delivery girl undoubtedly is, it is this character’s lot to be patronised, letched at and groped by practically every male in the small rural village she frequents. It soon becomes clear, though, that this is all part of a general strategy on the part of the director: rather than being made to look completely aberrant, the attitude of the deranged psychopath at the centre of this film is merely at the extreme end of a general way of viewing women that is pretty much endemic among all the other characters we see on the screen. The abuser is just like all the other impoverished, frustrated middle-aged men we see throughout the village, who spend their afternoons slumped in bars or cafes gazing longingly at short-skirted young women and entertaining themselves by describing in detail to each other what they would like to do to them. The only difference between them and the real nutcase (as he rather smugly appreciates while he sits among them passing the time of day) is that he is actually getting to do all the things they only talk about, and living out the fantasies of all the middle-aged has-beens and never-weres around him, with the aid of chloroform and a secret self-constructed basement prison!
The social context which allows the film’s accumulating series of unpleasant tortures and base humiliations to play out is built on the conceit of there being a trail of naive, pretty young girls from Seoul unknowingly wandering into this unsophisticated, unreconstructed rural backwater (where the social protection afforded by the city’s more cosmopolitan basis for interaction between the sexes doesn’t exist) and finding themselves suddenly defenceless against every kind of deranged and horrific depravity that could possibly be heaped upon a woman by men unrestrained by social mores. The film is essentially the Korean equivalent of a backwoods horror flick, based on the fish-out-of-water city person forced to deal with the rough country values of their rural peers. The light hearted sections begin to take on an increasingly ironic tone despite the pleasant, sunny rural imagery -- with the sadistic psychopathic antagonist not only being able to move freely among his peers in the local village, but actually being popular with them! He can turn up at a local clothes store, for instance, on numerous occasions to buy flimsy underclothes for his non-existent daughter, and not be suspected even though he always seems to be purchasing completely different sizes; the dismissive local police chief thinks he is ‘a devoted soul’ who looks after his sick mother (actually he murdered his father while still a teenager and fed him to pigs, and his crippled, aged mom is left immobile on the living room floor!) and who wouldn’t hurt a fly; having driven into town on his moped after a hard mornings’ rape in his underground dungeon, his friends smilingly comment on how ‘he seems in an especially perky mood today!’
The veteran actor Moon Sung-Keun plays the film’s psychopathic lunatic -- a local chicken farmer called Jang Pan-gon, whose deranged pastimes provide the film with its unexpectedly disturbing exploitation content. He preys on unsuspecting city females who unwittingly stray into his lonely district, like the young budding starlet Hyun-ah (Jeon Se-Hong), who, while driving through his out-of-the-way hilltop farmyard on her way to an audition for a film role, stops off for a break with her good-looking aspiring director companion, only to be dragged off to a filthy dog cage in Pan-gon’s rat-infested basement after her male friend is messily garrotted and hacked through the head with an axe.
The film boasts a rather excellent performance from Moon Sung-keun. Rather than making Pan-gon seem threatening and disturbing from the off, the actor exudes an aura of downtrodden sheepishness and harmless anonymity; it’s almost understandable that no one ever suspects the mild looking chicken farmer of being capable of the sheer magnitude of depravity he turns out to be in the habit of perpetuating. By day, he delivers eggs in the village and claims their unique tastiness is due to the ’special ingredient’ used in the chicken feed his hens have been reared on; in actual fact, that ingredient is the remains of his victims, who’re ground up into mince in a giant meat-grinder once they’ve ceased to be of any further sexual use to him after months of his abuse. The grim ordeal of Jeon Se-Hong, playing the film’s sympathetic heroine, takes up most of the first hour of the film. She’s attractive, bubbly, and glamorous. It’s hard to imagine -- especially from the film’s deceivingly mainstream tone at the beginning -- that anything really, really nasty is going to be allowed to happen to her. Without giving too much away, this turns out to be more wrong than you could possibly imagine! Poor Hyun-ah is subjected to women-in-prison-style naked hose downs, left to relieve herself in a dank cage, and forced to dress in a skimpy slip while she takes part in Pan-gon’s bizarre children’s birthday party-style celebrations, during which he dresses up in a garishly coloured shirt (and has his hair all especially primped with hairspray for the occasion) and performs a self-penned Karaoke number to his bewildered victim. When she interrupts his singing while gulping down a celebratory coca cola, he finds a rather grotesquely unpleasant use for the gloopy cream birthday cake and indulges in some squirm-inducing rough dental work with a pair of pliers in order to facilitate forcing her into being able to bring him some pleasurable relief without further endangering his manhood!
This first hour is nowhere near as graphic as many of the forensically anatomical, gore-drenched films audiences see all the time these days, but the nudity and the gross acts of indecency visited upon the lead actress seem so out of place in this mainstream horror context that they pack far more of a punch than expected. The structure of the film is relatively unusual, but not unprecedented. Strangely, it reminded me a lot of the work of British exploitation maestro Pete Walker, whose ‘70s Home Counties shocker “House of Whipcord” it bears an uncanny resemblance to. Both films introduce the main character’s sister (Choo Ja-Hyun who plays Hyun-jung) in the second half, and both then switch focus to follow this character’s perpetually frustrated attempts to track down the whereabouts of her missing kin, who is being held prisoner beneath her nose all the time. As was frequently the case with Walker’s films, women are generally victims but are also the stronger, more resilient characters in the movie, while men are usually completely useless, even when they’re trying to be of help rather than hinder (which is not often). The final half-hour enters familiar last act slasher territory, with the pixyish Hyun-jung making for an unexpectedly tough opponent for the -- by now -- completely-off-the-chart insane Pan-gon. Although “Missing” cannot claim to be anything essentially new, the old-school slasher-exploitation approach behind it makes it feel fresher somehow than its grittier, harder modern-day torture-based cousins. It’s well worth giving a spin, even if you think you’ve seen it all before too many times to be bothered.
The film is afforded a fairly pleasing transfer on CineAsia’s UK DVD. The 5.1 Korean audio track delivers a pleasantly robust soundscape with the disc also containing a standard stereo 2.0 mix as well. English subtitles are readable and seem fairly coherent, while the only extras come in the form of a brief teaser trailer and a theatrical trailer.