Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Mar 10, 2016 6:23 pm 
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Four women in Kobe in family and marriage crises

The title of Ryusuke Hamaguchi's long film, Happy Hour, is ironic. His four female protagonists, Jun (Rira Kawamura), Akari (Sachie Tanaka), Sakurako (Hazuki Kikuchi) and Fumi (Maiko Mihara), all 37, friends since they were in junior high, move much closer to quiet desperation than happiness in their lives and marriages during the course of the action. What may seem at first glance little more than a classy Japanese soap, has a delightfully soothing epic quietude that links it back to Ozu. For the first three and a half hours, its restrained, very Japanese scenes of concealment and revelation, apology and withholding of forgiveness, are quite wonderful. At that point the unconscionably long public reading of a novel manuscript by a young woman writer, Yuzuki Nose (Ayaka Shibutani), occurs, some of the characters become wild and distraught, and the last hour seems longer than the first three. Perhaps it had to be that way: if Hamaguchi knew how to tie things off neatly, he'd have made a film of normal length. (Happy Hour was shown and got an acting prize at Locarno, a festival that seems to favor long-running movies.)

The marathon run-time allows for the novelistic (or mini-series) pleasure of not only playing out individual scenes in something more like real time, but also taking close looks at multiple relationships -- Scenes from Several Marriages, as it were. For a non-Japanese the four award-winning actresses, relative novices whose roles were developed in workshops, may be a little hard to tell apart; but if they seem similarly ordinary, it's precisely Hamaguchi's intention to avoid the flashy. The first scene makes them seem rather plain as they sit at a picnic on a mountain on a day trip, looking over the Kobe skyline shrouded in a fog that one says is like their future, and planning a get-together. It's the next, much longer sequence, a little workshop with a sort of guru called Ukai (Shuhei Shibata), about "communication" (using the English word, which will crop up frequently later too) and "finding your center" -- an understated Seventies-style touchy-feely process illustrating both the uptightness of Japanese culture and its built-in gift for cooperation and reading each other's minds. But it's at the third big sequence, a dinner following the workshop where the four friends join Ukai and some others, that secrets start to come out. The workshop is fascinating, a study in shyness and openness. The dinner is revelatory, the film's ensemble work at its peak. In these first big sequences Hamaguchi and his ensemble are on a roll.

Around the table, Akari, a nurse and a divorcee, emerges as the strongest of the women (her acting seems a bit strident at first). In an impassioned speech, she declares that she has to play hard and indulge in sexual adventures to escape the grim realities of dealing daily in her job with an aging population with an overburdened medical system. But a greater revelation comes from the more complicated, seemingly withdrawn Jun: she shocks her friends by blurting out that she's seeking to divorce her scientist husband Kohei (Zahana Yoshitaka), having had an affair, and she hasn't told the other three, or told about the court case, which is horrible. This revelation disturbs the bond among the women, because they feel lied to, or deceived. They attend a divorce court session, and we hear how adamant Jun's husband is. In an attempt at reconciliation among themselves, the women go to the thermal baths of Arima -- where Jun disappears. It later emerges that she's pregnant, and that she's taken refuge at a chain of centers for women who've been denied the right to divorce their husbands. By the end both gallery manager Fumi and housewife Sakurako have followed Jun's lead and told their husbands, Takuya (Hiroyuki Miura) and Yoshihiko (Tsugumi Kugai), respectively, that they went divorces.

Men don't come off well here. Beside Jun's husband who wants to keep her in the prison of marriage even if it becomes a "hell," Fumi's long-haired editor mate Takuya, who stages the reading in her gallery and brings in Ukai to conduct the Q&A, emerges as a cold bastard; and Sakurako's Yoshi, who must contend with a young son Daiki, who gets his girlfriend pregnant, is stolid and conventionally macho, while the seemingly gracious and beautiful Ukai, when he reappears, turns out to be a soulless sexual exploiter. With the reading, which arouses memories of Hong Sang-soo, Hamaguchi starts inter-cutting it with other scenes, doubtless aware of the need to jazz it up.

The manuscript-reading sequence may be serious, or deadpan satire. Either way playing it out in real time was a mistake. And at this point the seat-weary viewer may just be exhausted. The choppier later sequences are less satisfying than the earlier long ones, as well as more melodramatic; and people start falling down too often, the writers seeming eager to start killing off the cast but ambivalent about whether or not to actually do so. Nonetheless, Happy Hour, however flawed, is a tour de force made on a shoestring (apparently the budget was $50,000) showing Hamaguchi, who has a background in documentary, to be a director worth watching. The appreciative essay/review by Nicolas Bardot for the French online publicaiton Film de Culte makes convincing comparisons with Jacques Rivette and the aforementioned Hong Sang-soo, also with a new generation of Japanese directors I haven't even heard of - Katsumi Tomita, Ayumi Sakamoto -- producing minimalist epics; and pointing to the visual beauties, he cites Kiyoshi Kurosawa. I'm also indebted to a website called Genkinhito, which has a detailed summary of the film, plus some reader comments showing I'm not alone in my dissatisfaction with the manuscript reading and my feeling that things go south from then on.

Happy Hour/ ハッピーアワー (Happî awâ), 317 mins., debuted at Locarno (sixth ND/NF 2016 originating there); the four actresses in the principal roles received a collective best actress award there; at Singapore Hamaguchi got the best director prize. Also shown in the LFF. Reviewed by Mark Shilling in Japan Times. Also in 6 other international festivals, including New Directors/New Films (FSLC-MoMA), where it was screened for this review, showing 26 Mar. 2016 at 1 P.m. at MoMA, 27 Mar. at the same time at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center.

Fumi (Maiko Mihara), Sakurako (Hazuki Kikuchi) , Jun (Rira Kawamura), Akari (Sachie Tanaka)

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