'A Man Vanishes': Director ahead of his time ★★★ 1/2

'A Man Vanishes'

'A Man Vanishes' (January 31, 2013)

"I want to capture this new reality," says the filmmaker behind the camera, Shohei Imamura, in his cunning 1967 riddle "A Man Vanishes." Imamura, who devoted his creative life to both fiction features and documentaries (he died in 2006), is the subject of a six-film retrospective titled "Imamura Investigates," playing through Feb. 11 at the Siskel Film Center. Five of the six look, behave and perform certain ways, according to commonly accepted strictures of non-fiction. But "A Man Vanishes" confounds expectations.

Beginning as a curious, discursive "This Japanese Life"-style verite chronicle of a real-life unsolved disappearance, the film gradually slips into so much else: an essay on voyeurism, on a filmmaker's caprices and responsibilities, on national character and familial shame. Imamura opens in a police station, introducing the case file of a missing-persons case two years earlier involving a rakish, hard-drinking young Tokyo salesman who embezzled from his company. In hiding, with an apparently complicated love life, he has left behind a befuddled family and a scorned fiancee.

The fiancee's nickname is Mouse, and she becomes a prominent player in this strange, stimulating hybrid of narrative fact and fiction. The woman ends up falling for a man involved in the making of the documentary. On camera, Imamura and his colleagues wonder if they've lost control of the story. Or if they ever had it.

These days, anybody with a camera and a trickster's sense of unreliable narration can make some noise. Imamura's hybrid is quieter, more inquisitory. Even if you know where it's going, even with its reiterative passages, "A Man Vanishes" casts a spell. In its day, few precedents existed for the film's approach: This was a few years after "L'Avventura" asserted that the one who goes missing isn't the only real story afoot. Imamura prodded audiences to question everything laid out before them as truth.

mjphillips@tribune.com

'A Man Vanishes' -- 3 1/2 stars
No MPAA rating
Running time:
2:10; in Japanese with English subtitles
Plays: 3 p.m. Sunday, 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Siskel Film Center.

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