Missing Johnny (Taiwan, 2017) [NYAFF 2018]

A cardinal rule in contemporary Taiwan cinema is that Hou Hsiao-hsien can simply do no wrong. Seeing his name grace a film’s opening credits is probably the most accurate litmus test for cinematic quality, and with Missing Johnny, this remains to be the case. Although far from perfect, Missing Johnny serves as a thoughtful examination of modern day existence from first time director Xi Huang. It’s a solid debut from a budding talent who is certainly here to stay.

Missing Johnny primarily revolves around three seemingly unrelated central characters. There’s Feng (Lawrence Ko), a workman who we see taking odd jobs but seems to have a solid network of support around the city. Li (Sean Huang) is an autistic adult male with a strong bond with his mother, relying on sticky notes to help drive a daily routine. Finally, there’s Hsu (Rima Zeidan), an independent women living alone in the city with a penchant for housing pet birds.

At the start of the film, there’s a palpable sense of stability in these characters’ lives that almost feels mundane and stale. For the most part, any discernible storylines are quite thin but these characters do cross paths and friction slowly builds up. A recurring motif is Feng’s car breaking down, with two separate scenes depicting the physical act of pushing a stalled car with intense effort. This struggle of pushing through physical dead weight is mirrored metaphorically by the internal conflicts imposed onto each of the central characters. Even though nothing overly exciting happens in their lives, the film carries this thematic angle on its shoulders and guides audiences through a thought provoking exploration of what it means to stare life straight in the eyes, rather than avoiding its sharp gaze.

With minimal dialogue and theatrics, Missing Johnny relies heavily on its actors and this is perhaps where the film shines brightest. Zeidan marks her feature film debut with a performance that has already garnered a few statues of praise (including a Golden Horse Award for Best New Performer). It’s clear that Zeidan has a natural ability to act, and this was far from a simple first acting gig. While Hsu is clearly a character who is strong-minded and values independence, a few pivotal scenes also underscore how vulnerable and lonely she is actually is. One particularly striking scene sees Hsu storm off from an argument with her long-term partner, only to find herself seated in Feng’s car in silence. The silence continues as Feng enters the car to find her right next to him, with Zeidan creating a calculated, yet intimate distance with both Feng and the viewer. It’s never completely clear what she might be thinking, but her emotional state of mind is clearer than ice.

Credit must also be given to her co-stars, including the ever-dependable Ko. His character Feng doesn’t say too much, but with a truly guided performance by Ko, Feng is never regarded as a thoughtless character. Although we don’t know too much about Feng’s backstory, it’s clear that there is a rich backstory to this characterization, which comes alive thanks to a solid performance. The same could be said about Huang, who is never over the top with his portrayal of an autistic individual. For a film that relies so heavily on subtle character details, the main cast was simply superb.

It’s the subtle nature of Missing Johnny is what makes it both an impressive, yet flawed effort. Xi guides viewers in a way that places them as passive observers, peering into the lives of these individuals. It’s an approach that works fairly well, and creates a sense of normalcy that produces relatable characterizations and emotions. The film has a strong scent of Hou, and that is certainly not something to complain about. However, whereas Hou is able to interject his world of calm calamity with spurts of intensity when needed – The Assassin (2015) comes right to mind – we don’t necessary get that with Missing Johnny. When somewhat dramatic things happen, like when Hsu and Feng witness a domestic dispute near the end of the film, Huang just isn’t able to amp things up to an analogous level. It might seem like a minor setback given that these dramatic scenes are few and far between, but such scenes carry a lot of weight in a film like this and their delivery matters more than one would think.

Even though Missing Johnny isn’t flawless, it’s a fine directorial debut from someone who seems to have sufficiently impressed the great Hou. If that stamp of approval means anything to you, then you’ll be sure to keep tabs on what Xi does next.

Missing Johnny is showing on July 7 at the New York Asian Film Festival.