With all the awards season attention coming to Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car,” it’s worth catching up with his earlier films, if nothing else to see how his style evolved in a way that emphasized patience, the “slow cinema” that allowed him to get a three hour movie out of a short story.
“Happy Hour” (2015) hinted at the quintessentially Japanese subtlety of his storytelling, a near real-time (over five hours) visit with three 30something women reevaluating their lives after their fourth divorces and moves on.
But last year’s “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” is a far more easily-consumed and digested trip to Hamaguchiland, a collection of three short stories entertaining the idea of paths taken and not taken. It’s patient and engrossing and beautifully-acted. And it won’t eat up a whole day of reading subtitles (it’s in Japanese) as you’re plumbing the depths of what these characters are going through.
The stories begin with “Magic (or Something Less Assuring),” and we follow Meiko (Kotone Furukawa) , a cute, seemingly carefree model who catches up with her friend Tsugumi (Hyunri) on a long, real-time taxi ride across town. “Gumi” has just met this “hottie” who may be a “player,” so she confides about how intimate, erotic and chaste their first date went.
The details Gumi shares should be enough to make the cabbie blush, but East is East, I guess.
Meiko takes it all in, banters and asks questions, and after dropping Gumi off, returns to the neighborhood where she picked her up. She visits an ex-beau (Ayumu Nakajima). She recognized the man Gumi was describing — perhaps from his come-on lines, but more likely from the tender, broken way he talked about his “ex,” the one who cheated on him and left him emotionally gutted. That would be Meiko.
They reminisce and argue and things take a turn toward ugly. What will Meiko, whom we’ve had to reconsider and reevaluate, do with this information, this connection that she hasn’t told her smitten friend about?
“Door Wide Open” is a college tale about a housewife (Katsuki Mori) and SOTA — student older than average — meeting her undergrad lover (Shouma Kai) for a tryst, only to have him continue the seduction with a post-coital pitch for her to help him humiliate a professor (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) who ruined “my whole future.”
Will Nao set a “honey trap” for the brooding, introspective Professor Segowa, a novelist who just won a major literary prize for his frankly-racy and sexually revealing book? He’s a patient, poker-faced man who always takes care to keep his office “Door Wide Open” to avoid any hint of abuse or impropriety.
And “Once Again” is a mistaken-identity/or-not story of two 40ish women (Fusako Urabe, Aoba Kawai) who cross paths when they pass each other on a train station’s escalator. They recognize each other, meet for tea and share their lives — one came out as gay after high school, the other married — and start to wonder if each is who the other thought she was.
The stories share a beguiling, meditative strangeness that draws us in. Hamaguchi sets up our expectations, then upends them with this revelation about a character or that wrinkle in the plot.
One even has an epilogue, a “five years later” coda set in a time after a computer virus has turned life back into its letter-writing, email free analog past.
I can’t say I find Hamaguchi the most inviting Japanese filmmaker. His long, humorless, somewhat repetitive and generally-downbeat take on talk-talk-talkies isn’t for the impatient. There’s a naturalism to the performances, the parameters of conversation and “real time” in these films that is both unique and a tad maddening.
You try reviewing a film where characters never do that movie thing of identifying each other by name, something that happens every day in everyday life. That takes away the viewer’s bearings and perhaps forces us to bear down on the conversations, gleaning the meaning in every nuance.
Having seen a few of his films, I’ve parked Hamaguchi in an arm’s length pigeonhole, someone whose movies are distinctly his, with characters whose psyche is peeled away, ever-so-slowly, scene by patient scene. They’re interesting, but even digging that deep into people, the films about them are chilly, remote and entirely too “patient” and monotonous for my tastes.
I even found myself wracking my brain over the familiar piece of classical piano music that introduces each story. It’s Robert Schumann’s “Dreaming (Träumerei).” Apt? Perhaps. But your point?
Rating: unrated, frank sexual discussions
Cast: Kotone Furukawa, Ayumu Nakajima, Hyunri, Kiyohiko Shibukawa, Katsuki Mori, Shouma Kai, Fusako Urabe, Aoba Kawai
Credits: Scripted and directed by Ryûsuke Hamaguchi. A Film Movement release.
Running time: 2:01