Sunday, August 29, 2010

[Japanese Film Festival] Sweet Little Lies (Suîto Ritoru Raizu)

Should We Tell?

You see it happen all the time, where it's usually the guy having a good time at the arcade, or engrossed in a portable video game, and you wonder just what's going across their other half's mind – are they just going to sit/stand around and do nothing or peer into what the bells and whistles of the game is? I'd always thought that it's advantageous to spend quality time together, and if you have someone else distracted for the most parts when going out, one might as well head home. This is just relationships but what if it's crept into a marriage?

Sweet Little Lies is this year's Closing Film for the Japanese Film Festival, and it's a relatively new film, with the JFF/Singapore being the 4th country in the world to screen it. Based on the novel by Kaori Eguni and directed by Hitoshi Yazaki, it is not an easy film to sit through, and by that I mean that it's an excellent, engaging film, but poses a lot of real world questions that it'll probably take you a lifetime to figure out, if at all, and depending on which set of values you're subscribing at any point in time.

We see the house of married couple husband Satoshi (Nao Omori, whom I last saw in person at the gala premiere of The Laughing Policeman at TIFF last year) and Kuriko (Miki Nakatani), which to me is quite the life for the husband as the wife wakes up early to ready everything for him (OK, perhaps a compromise is made since she works from home making teddy bears), and then lovingly calls him up through gentle knocks on the bedroom window. On the surface it seemed like the perfect married life in a perfect little house, but for all the chic and functional furniture within, one can feel that the relationship has gone a little bit stale, but with nobody daring to rock the boat and communicate desires. The traditional roles of husband and wife are extremely well defined and dutifully executed as we bear witness to their painful routine, but we slowly see the cracks surfacing through instances like the calling of each other at home having to resort to the use of cellphones.

The film sets you thinking from the onset, and you'll be wondering whether it is a requisite for couples to share common interests in order to bind them together and sustain a relationship. Obviously both Satoshi and Kuriko share very little interests together, which makes it baffling how they managed to hook up in the first place, and staying married without a single quarrel over 3 years and counting. Some of us subscribe to that being a little bit fantastical, and are more convinced that arguments are inevitable and sometimes do lead to a better understanding. You'll also start to wonder if rising costs of living meant a child is out of the picture now, and whether physical intimacy does play that big a role as the glue, here one being unwilling to initiate, and the other being more interested in video games and music and secretly I think yearning the singlehood life where you have the liberty to do what you want, when you want, without consulting anyone else.

Both leads Omori and Nakatani present their stark differences in characters really well, having to sit on the fence in preferring the status quo, yet being unable and unwilling to assert for something more as we can observe from their nuanced performance. As the film alludes to, no relationship can survive without passion nor truth, which the narrative takes this litmus test on. It's different interests in each other in contrast to that of their respective stalkers (at the early point when they come into the picture) who shower their mark with plenty of much needed attention, like Miura (Chizuru Ikewaki) planting ideas onto Satochi with lunches every Wednesdays on her off days to meetings at nights, and Haruo (Junichi Kobayashi) increasingly bumping into Kuriko out of sheer coincidence, attending her bear product show versus her husband's absence which translates to not giving two hoots about supporting his wife, preferring to spend time in a virtual video game world. It's a marriage, or any relationship for that matter, doomed to failure with the writing already on the wall.

Yazaki's film challenges you to pass judgement, and it is this challenge that's not easy to do. You'll be confronted with a very wide incident base and scenes that knock on your beliefs, deciding how guilty is the guilty, and who's to blame in any expected fallout should it happen. On one hand you're provoked to point fingers, yet on the other you're rooting for the couple to somehow work out their differences or face utter destruction in their 3 years of spending their lives together, but despite knowing if it ends it should end, rather than to drag it out. With infidelity being cited as a key reason why couples separate, you want to get in on laying the blame, but only through careful thought as it's easy to point fingers on either, yet it takes two hands to clap.

It confronts your fundamental beliefs in the institution of marriage, especially what constitutes cheating - the desire, of not telling the other if something is not quite what it seems, or the deed itself? Which is more severe, cheating involving the body, mind or both? How do you draw the line, especially if I'm coming from the husband being quite the selfish chauvinist in not wanting to give up a little bit of time off his pursuits to help or support his wife. This in itself could be used as justification why someone will want to stray, then again, if the fundamentals are strong, who would? See the dilemma, which Yazaki continues to present throughout the film. We even hear a warning shot early in the film given by Kuriko, together with plenty of red herring moments, but we again see the double standards practiced.

As the adage goes there's no smoke without fire, and if not kept under control, it'll soon spiral all directions, like an addiction that has to be satiated, and looking at the characters, they're only momentarily happy but beneath are quite rotten to the core with guilt. Everything continues to be smooth sailing and only the audience is let in on who's doing what, and put in a position to reflect upon how one will handle similar situations, depending on where and how you draw the line.

One of the key questions as the film inches its way to the finale, will be whether the couple can maintain status quo as per the title in keeping their sweet little lies to themselves, or as part of matrimony decide to tell each other the truth. Will they be better off in doing so and living up to an honest relationship, or will ignorance still continue to provide that bliss? We learn guilt has already set in, yet didn't see whether both Satochi and Kuriko will be learning from their lessons. The film raises questions, but you're left on your own devices to provide the answer, which is never immediate. For those in relationships, this film plants that fear factor into you, questioning how much you know and trust someone else, and for those who are not, well, did this film set in motion that a trustworthy relationship is something of a pipe dream?

I'd like to reckon this film like an anti-thesis and companion piece to Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love, where a couple meets and contemplates a relationship because their spouses are cheating on them with each other. In this one, we go over to the other side and observe what happens when both spouses cheat, yet remain quite ambivalent about it all, each keeping their own titular sweet little lies. One film is steep in romanticism, while this one presents a frightfully possible reality through its cast performances and composition - cinematography under Isao Ishii is beautiful - that masks the underlying currents and trappings of a troubled relationship/marriage. Definitely one of the best films I've seen this year!

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