Movie Review: Loner photographer connects with the Japanese “Woman in the Photographs”

He’s a loner, a photographer who runs the photo studio he inherited from his father, a man who almost never speaks, especially to women. His hobby is photographing insects in the parks of this corner of Japan. He even keeps a praying mantis as a pet.

She’s a model, an influencer and a former ballerina, struggling to work out her issues, bodily and financial.

Their “meet cute” is him spying her, a lithe beauty in yoga pants and halter top, entangled in the top of a tree after a fall. A selfie gone wrong?

But something about this odd, outgoing Kyoko makes the misogynist photographer follow her, see to her wounds and even take her in, pretty much without saying a word.

This “Woman of the Photographs” becomes his erotic obsession, and this weird, older photographer earns her interest. Perhaps it’s the way he photographs her injuries, or his deft hand at touching up her photos to hide those deep scratches, which at some point, she decides she can’t bear to allow to heal.

The debut feature of Takeshi Kushida is kinky and polite, obsessive and cringe-worthy and ever-so-Japanese in all these regards.

I didn’t catch Kai (Hideki Nagai) mentioned by name. As he virtually never speaks, and his customers all seem to want the same thing, that’s understandable. He never even mentions his fees.

What the newly-divorced man looking for a portrait-quality photo with his ex-wife erased from it, or the woman (Toki Koinuma) who keeps getting her dating website photo “improved” want is Kai’s master’s touch with the digital airbrush. We watch him “clean up” photos in real time, raising her cheekbones, thinning her waist and the like.

It’s no wonder Kai prefers the unretouched natural world, which is how Kyoko stumbles into his presence.

Whatever we notice about her as she bleeds from cuts, fusses over the selfie that let to the injuries and didn’t come out, and generally carry on both ends of a running conversation, is her beauty. What Kai sees is anybody’s guess, as he cannot stop recoiling any time she touches him.

An old friend of his and his father’s (Toshiaki Inomata, who was in “Drive My Car”) is something of an intermediary. At least he talks to her, fills in details of Kai’s life and explains this retouching business to Kyoko, who avails herself of it for her influencer/brand rep website.

“A good lie can make people happy,” the older man rationalizes. What’s the harm in that?

But Kyoko sees something insidious about this polished “truth,” connecting her obsession with the perfections and imperfections of her body with his meticulous efforts to achieve perfection, if only in an idealized photo.

“We are two of a kind,” she decides. “We can only love ourselves through others.”

Kushida puts this unequal, somewhat unsettling relationship through the wringer as Kyoko’s mania has her picking at her wounds to keep them from healing, and Kai kind of getting off on that.

The relationship is filtered through their separate routines, her “daily Kyoko” photo, which has can turn into a work of art, his trips to the communal bathhouse, his daily “uniform” of white suit, socks and hat.

The filmmaker messes around with sound here, with every sound effect — shoes on cobble-stones, etc. — looped-in. Insect noises sneak into the soundtrack, and the mantis eating sound effect would pass muster in any horror film.

Slight as it is, it’s all a little creepy and occasionally kind of funny, in a dry, dark and oh-my-God-did-she-open-that-wound AGAIN bloody way.

Rating: unrated, disturbing, bloody imagery, nudity

Cast: Hideki Nagai, Itsuki Otaki, Toki Koinuma and Toshiaki Inomata

Credits: Scripted and directed by Takeshi Kushida. A Dread release, through Epic Pictures.

Running time: 1:29


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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