Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Jun 23, 2024 6:56 pm 
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Seeking love in Tokyo and the Hokkaido snows

Rei refers to a genderless given name, a Japanese kanji character that only gains meaning when joined with other kanji. ("Pair.") This is presented before the film begins and in the middle of it. The implication must be that another person can "complete" you. But that doesn't prove true in this overlong melodrama, which is tarnished by a retro attitude toward disability: that and its long run-time as Wendy Ide says in her Screen Daily Rotterdam review, make this film unlikely to succeed in international theaters, despite its top Rotterdam Tiger Award and how absorbing it is in parts. A small child with learning disabilities and a grown man who is deaf are important characters and it is the way they and their effect on people around them are treated that is troubling and unsatisfactory.

Asari parents Hira, the small child, but it a burden that weighs terribly upon her. She is best friends with Hikari, a successful single woman in a design business, who encounters the deaf Masato (writer-director-producer Toshhiko Tanaka, who has a striking, youthful face) when she admires his photographs in theater brochures: she goes to plays a lot and seeks him out to do photos of her. She also gets involved with a lead actor in the plays. A scene where the actor, who says he has slost his passion and is quitting acting, tries to make Hikari recite for him a speech from King Lear is one of the most painfully overwrought moments of the film.

But it is Masato - sexy and mysterious as played by director Tanaka - whom Hikari follows to snowy Hokkaido, leading to a dramatic collapse in a blizzard and many beautiful landscape shots where dp Ikeda Akio’s cinematography shines. In fact, Masato is a photographer of landscape, not portraits. But he starts taking his big camera and shooting people later on, almost as a weapon, after a male admirer cuts him off from Hikari and he becomes frustrated and deeranged.

Masato has never bothered to learn sign language. When Hikari gets interested she studies it and finds out no, you can only communicate with him by email, handwritten notes, or maybe mental telepathy. There is little suggestion here that deafness or learning disability can be dealt with successfully or logically. Everything is impressionistic.

Poor little Hira exists only as a problem, by which her father justifies having an affair with a nurse who cared for Masato's mother in her dying days. Her mother doesn't want to put her in a special needs school, but that doesn't go well.

Hikari's own "problem" is that she has no problems, never has had them, of health or otherwise. Dissatisfied with her perfect life (but without a man), she sees herself as "transparent," or a blank. It is she who is the genderless letter needing to be completed.

But Hikari doesn't succeed; no one does. Each of the main characters of Rei at one point or another declares themself hopeless. Even Masato tries to speak late in the film to clumsily shout "I wish I was never born."

James Hadfield says in his Japan Times review that this film is a gift of Covid, because the theater people who made it did so when the theaters were closed due to the pandemic. He says "there’s a palpable, go-for-broke energy to this underdog production, as if everyone involved realized they might not get another chance." There is something exciting about the complexity of the plotting and the raging feelings, the extravagant love affair with a deaf man, but it all starts to burn itself out before the three-plus hours are over. The filmmaker reportedly said at a screening that the script was finished in ten days. He gives Hamaguchi as an influence: I feared as much from the outset. What Hamaguchi does is not necessarily a good template. But a review comments that "the echoes of Happy Hour and Drive My Car are plain for all to see." Tanaka has also said he wants viewers of his film to notice its depiction of landscape and the seasons and their effect on people and their moods, and this is what's best about it.

Rei莉の対 , 189 mins., debuted at Rotterdam Jan. 25, 2024, where it won the Tiger award. Screened for this review as part of the 2024 New York Japan Cuts series (Jul. 10-21).

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