Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Oct 12, 2018 6:37 pm 
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The director had made seven features and documentaries since 2007 when his five-hour Happy Hour (ND/DF 2016) three years ago gained him international attention, and that helped him jump right into Competition at Cannes with his new film, Asako I & II. Adapted from a novel of the same title by Tomoka Shibasaki, it's about about a young woman torn between two identical-looking young men, one rakish and wild, the other reliable and conventional. The contrast is itself a very conventional one. A similar theme was treated (in a sexier, more provocative way) last year by François Ozon in Double Lover. Ozon was playing to a grownup taste in thrillers and S&M. Depending on how you look at it, Hamaguchi's take is delicate and mysterious, or bland YA rom-com stuff.

There is fun in observing the game either way, Ozon's way or Hamaguchi's way, of a woman being pleased or tormented by an attractive man. In Ozon's case it's the elegant former model Marine Vacth and the seasoned Belgian actor Jérémie Renier, who got his start with the Dardenne brothers. In Hamaguchi's, it's the tall, thin, delicately handsome Masahiro Higashide, who plays both the sexy, undependable Baku of Osaka and the conventional, reliable, less exciting Ryohei.

It's fun to admire Higashide's looks in both roles, and the two performances are in more subtle shades of difference than those imposed on Jérémie Renier by Ozon. Not that Higashide doesn't look quite unlike Baku when he turns up as Ryohei. Baku has a wild mop of hair and bohemian attire of jeans and flip flops; also, according to Maggie Lee's Variety review, as Baku he speaks in a broad Osaka dialect (they meet there; she meets Ryohei in Tokoyo). Ryohei is a young salaryman (he works for a brewery) in standard suit and tie uniform. The different look makes all the difference. The actor does a good job with it.

The trouble is that Asako, as played by Erika Karata, is the same passive, doll-like young thing with both men, and her indecision, which Lee calls "banal," just seems silliness, or very poor judgment. If only she were in the grip of something complex and compelling; but she doesn't seem to be. A less recognized unwisdom, we might say, is that of Ryohei, who gathers early on that Asako's attracted to him because of his resemblance to another guy, but goes on despite this to fall in love with her. We may want to forgive him because he's basically a a decent and reliable chap. But Asako isn't the only foolish one.

We don't really see much of Baku - he isn't around for that long - and some audience members, seduced by his attractiveness, may find him dreamy, as Asako does, but he can easily be seen as a narcissistic doofus - which his later reappearance turned into a supermodel does nothing to dispel. Asako's friends warn her right off that he's an unreliable seducer. The trouble is telegraphed to us right away when he goes out for bread and doesn't come back till the next day.

Nonetheless they fall in lust, with heavy kissing, even after they've crashed a motorcycle and are lying sprawled on the highway. Months later, the affair ends when he goes out to buy shoes (to replace those flip flops, no doubt) and disappears. She's so devastated she moves from Osaka to Tokyo. With Ryohei, it really lasts, Asako sets up domestic life in an apartment overlooking a river, and they're together that way for five years. But her "thing" for Baku never goes away, it turns out.

As in Happy Hour, what's interesting is the ensemble scenes, when Asako is with friends, or friends of friends. There's a notable exchange - also maybe a sign of Hamagushi's tendency to go off on a tangent - when Ryohei brings Kushihashi (Kôji Seto), a work associate, to Asako's to meet her best friend Maya (Rio Yamashita), who is an actress. Kushihashi (turning out to be a frustrated actor himself) launches into a vehement, pointedly rude attack on her acting style, which he then abjectly apologizes for. Hamaguchi interpolates a sequence of the massive 2011 Japan earthquake (not in the novel; but he made a 2012 documentary about it, The Sound of Waves). These surprises add interest, as do the secondary characters.

But the film keeps coming back to the conventional contrast between the two men and Asako's immature behavior. Stephen Dalton in his Hollywood Reporter review calls her an "annoying airhead" who "would not pass even a basic Bechdel Test." That is to say, all she ever talks to other women about is men. Anyway - and this criticism applies to Ozon's Double Lover - the whole story hinges on a fantastic conceit and the focus becomes the conceit - or how Masahiro Hirashige plays the two contrasting roles - rather than on human relations. The kind of keen, specific observation we got in Happy Hour is too often missing here. Let's hope Hamaguchi will go on to better justify his new international recognition.

Asako I & II/寝ても覚めても NETEMO SANTEMO ("waking or sleeping"), 119 mins., debuted in competition at Cannes; eight other international festivals including Taipei, Toronto, Vancouver, and the New York Film Festival, where it was screened for this review 7 Oct. 2018. Metascore 68% [updated 2021; originally 61%].

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