Monday, August 23, 2010

[Japanese Film Festival] A Stranger of Mine (Unmei Janai Hito)

So What's For Dessert?

Today marks the start of a series of paid screenings of the Japanese Film Festival, which if you do not already know comes in two parts, the first being the free ones that celebrate the classics and masters of Japanese cinema. The contemporary offerings get its air time now, and in this year's selection comes a number of films programmed from Japan's oldest film festival, the PIA Film Fest. I haven't seen a film coming out of that festival till now, and if this film is any indication on the kind of quality we could be expecting over the next few days, then I can't wait!

Written and directed by Kenji Uchida, A Stranger of Mine begins with what I thought would have made it a fine romantic film. Maki (Reika Kirishima) decides to leave her cheating fiance, and pawns her engagement ring for 3500 Yen. Literally packing up all her troubles in an old kit bag, she wonders about town alone and dejected, wallowing in self pity before finally ending up in a restaurant where Kanda (So Yamanaka) is reminding Miyata (Yasuhi Nakamura) that age is catching up on the latter and that he should forget about Ayumi (Yuka Itaya) the girl who had dumped him. A coincidental meeting of someone from the opposite sex is just about never going to happen to people over 30 years of age and to create an opportunity for his friend, Kanda gets Maki to sit with them before he disappears, leaving the two strangers to sink or swim with their new found acquaintance.

So begins what would be an episode of emotional connection through awkward conversations going nowhere before some certainty in a friendship emerges, and from then on I thought it's about two broken, lonely souls connecting and rediscovering the beauty of being in a relationship should they take the leap of faith together. In some ways their conversations around town hints at Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise/Sunset, and some of the most beautiful love stories can actually happen in the simplest fashion with two interacting lead characters when their conversational pieces strike a chord emotionally between themselves and with an audience who identify with the topics at hand.

Hold you horses, buster, it is not this film! Uchida throws all that romanticism out of the window, and opts for a filmic romanticism of the non-linear narrative, where this film is not about two lonely, broken souls, but about 5 persons in total, offering a lot more to the entire story with the respective character arcs that enriches the entire story unfolding a series of events in 24 hours, giving us the expose on who the characters actually are, probing their intent and providing a multi-faceted look at their motivations, some uncanny, mostly comedic, some hopeful, while others scheming.

I'm all for non-linear narrative films, and am a sucker for them actually because of the way the filmmaker keeps you in suspense for the most parts, before slowly revealing the plot in a way that adds a little something to the film. This revelation doesn't need to be linear as well, and has to be done with skill so that the individual segments still made sense, is self-contained to tell a sub-story, and yet easy enough for an audience to pick up on certain cues meant to glue the rest of the segments together. Uchida succeeds on all counts, and what finally got delivered is a romantic comedy with characters we care for, even if they are fearsome gangsters, scheming fatales or wimpy nerds.

Just what about happens in the rest of the film best remains to be experienced yourself, so I'm going to keep mum about it. But I assure you that after Fish Story, this merits itself as one of the highlights of the festival experience thus far, and I'd enjoy a good madcap caper or two that demonstrated how the most innocuous of intent, with that proverbial suitcase of money and the necessity of Asian society and in general people across the board, to place a premium on face, and the saving of it. Certainly these were elements enough for Uchida to imaginatively craft a tale out of, and out came this superb film as a result.

As a character mentioned early in the film that nothing is coincidental, take it as a cue of what is on offer in the film, where you'd come to appreciate the intricacies of the storyline where every incident happens with purpose, makes sense and provides a lot of fun when the cat is let out of the bag, right up until the end credits, and more. It worked perfectly when a friend quipped “like that only ah”” and the end credit surprise came up for that coda. Made his day, and mine definitely.

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