Saturday, October 17, 2009

[TIFF 2009 Review] The Night of Whirlwind Restaurant (つむじ風食堂の夜) (World Premiere)

That Uneasy Feeling

"No tricks and no gimmicks", as one of the characters exclaim, but that's not to say that this film has shoddy production values. Told in chapters probably to resemble the novel by Atsuhiro Yoshida from which this film is based upon, The Night of the Whirlwind Restaurant boasts some beautifully shot exteriors thanks to the wintry Hokkaido environment, and fuzzy warm interior tones reflective of the journey that the unnamed protagonist "I" (Norito Yashima) undertakes, where strangers in a standalone diner at Tsukifune become firm friends as the story unfolds.

However, the episodic treatment made it hard to identify deeply with the characters involved, most of whom are seemingly one-dimensional caricatures, making it quite an unfortunate, emotionally hollow story to follow. No doubt it's a fantasy film with nostalgia a key theme where "I" reminisces about a father (Katsuhisa Namase) who supposedly vanished mysteriously. Flashbacks are used to bring his dad to life, in a time where magic was part and parcel of growing up, intricately tied to a barista and an expresso machine.

We don't learn a lot about the protagonist, hence making his character a little bit of an enigma. His occupation is relatively strange too, studying artificial rainfall, so much so that he's viewed as a “sensei” expert in a niche field. We also learn that he has a knack as a playwright, and these abilities opened up doors of friendship opportunities with the other diners. They all have their respective stories to tell, such as the aspiring actress (Sarara Tsukifune) wishing that “I” writes a role for her, and a talky mad hatter cum story-teller (Atomu Shimojo) trying to pass off a pedometer as a breakthrough fantasy item called the Binary Space Transporter, but these do not add further dimensions to these characters.

The more powerful narrative thread here happens to be on the relationship between the protagonist and his father, rather than the budding promise of a relationship with the actress which got hinted at. There's a sense of longing for the days gone past with moments in the present which triggers the reminiscence, given the impact that that his dad had on an impressionable kid. Director Tetsuo Shinohara had this angle down pat perfectly, together with the beautifully crafted visuals in this adult fantasy tale.

As mentioned, the film still didn't work for me as I found the little episodes doing little favours to the myriad of characters with whom I wanted to get acquainted with, though I suspect that fans of the original novel may take to the film a lot more with the thrill of seeing their literary characters being fleshed out, ripe for comparison.

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