Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jul 15, 2019 8:46 pm 
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A boy who is a magnet for kindness

The young director Moon Sung-ho, who is from Hiroshima, returned to his South Korean roots to study filmmaking in Seoul after high school in Japan, then returned to Japan to make this debut feature.
TV writer Naomi Hiruta has provided a screenplay that's a weird mixture. It's about a suicidal 18-year-old heart transplant survivor, a saccharine and upbeat story (Mirai, the tall, wispy protagonist played by Ayumu Mochizuki smiles and says thank you all the time) that conceals what the blog Genkinahito calls a "dark heart" - a continual preoccupation with suicide.

Mirai had a heart transplant when he was seven, financed by donations of $5 million from the community, and this drama was exploited by TV, which keeps on milking the story every year on the youth's birthday. He is depressed, feeling like a shell, not able to live up to expectations or repay the debt. Right when gushy locals and the media are making him feel like a fraud again, a troll called Kiyomaru on Mirai's smart phone sends him taunts about not being worth the money it cost to save him and deserving only to kill himself. There are several perennial Japanese themes here, excessive humility and suicidlity (perhaps close-linked?) with new ones of tech-crazed youth and homelessness, and more. A rather low view of Japanese life seems embedded in the idea that it costs a million-something to bring someone into the world and the average Japanese citizen makes about the same amount in a working life. What's the point of slaving your lifelong as a salaryman only to break even? By this kind of reckoning Mirai's life has been more costly than this, and it will take him 171 years to repay the debt by normal work.

Seeking some vague get-rich-quick scheme, Mirai runs away and has adventures, abandoning his plan to study medicine, and seeking naively to make back the money he somehow now thinks he "owes." It's a cockeyed idea, just a fantasy rom-com gimmick, but it provides a premise for sprightly changes of scene from a seemingly kind homeless man who empties his ATM account to day labor, to being a toy boy for pay in the city, falling in with kidnappers, and so on for a while.

This road-picture coming-of-age film may be contrasted with the more profound schemework of Ikiru, another movie about dying and the value of life. Unlike Mirai, Watanabe-san, the protagonist or Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece, has only a few months to live to begin with, and seeks the best way to spend his remaining time, which in the end turns out to be right right at his humble city hall job, striving to do good by insisting that a small park be built. Both characters explore a series of different activities that test life's diverse possibilities and their responses to them. One is entertainment, the other is art.

Ikiru is ennobled by a magical combination of its maker's cinematic genius and a profound humanistic worldview. 5 Million Dollar Life is more concerned with skewering insincerity and media exploitation but wastes time focusing on a superficial monetization of the value of Japanese life. Maybe the real point is Mirai is sick of being exploited. Anyway this road movie coming-of-ager is a dramady that loses its moody point in enjoyable picaresque exploits and displaying its protagonist's irresistible innocence and charm. The lead actor Ayumu Mochizuki projects an freshness and sweetness that make things charming light. Sexploitation and a grim yakuza cleanup somehow don't soil him.

The film delivers a message, Hirai's discovery: the world is divided not into nice people and not nice people but into people who're worth being nice to and those who aren't. And he? He is one who learns he survives on kindness, and people naturally want to be nice to him. But how long can anyone be adorable and innocent, and how long can we endure such a character? The truths in Five Million Dollar Life are facile, but as with any picaresque tale, there is amusement in the lively adventures and the hero's durability.

If Moon Sung-ho can't ennoble or enlighten, he certainly can entertain and he may be one to watch. I hope he pares away the saccharine life lessons next time and embeds his truths instead in the images and action.

Five Million Dollar Life 五億円のじんせい ("500 million yen"), 112 mins., releases July 20, 2019 in Japan. It was previewed as part of the NYAFF for this review, where it showed July 11.

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