Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Jul 25, 2020 12:29 pm 
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A feast of sensuality and self discovery

Terrible English title aside (the Japanese film's name is "Two at the Crater"), this new feature by Haruhiko Arai based on the prize-winning novel of Kazufummi Shirishi is fresh, original, and jaw-droppingly sexy. It's a two-hander, a lot of its success inevitably hence owed to Kumi Takiuchi as the woman, Naoko, and Tasuku Emoto as Kenji, the boy (now grown up, some, and divorced) with whom she had an intense sexual affair when they were very young. Naoko is about to marry a Self-Defense Forces colonel who's still away working. She's back in her hometown, Akita, for the wedding and finds Ken is back for the event at the house of his late mother, which is unused. What she proposes as a last 24-hour fling, despite his strong initial resistance morphs seamlessly into a five-day marathon.

And boy do they get it on. James Hadfield of The Japan Times describes this aspect well. He points out Arai, a screenwriting vet on his third directorial outing, was "seldom coy" about sex, but this time is so enthusiastic it "harks back" to his "earliest work" on "sofcore Nikkatsu Roman films." As he points out, "beds, baths and kitchen tables aren't safe and on a road trip they even "manage to get off" while "staying on a bus." But the conversation in between becomes as Bergmanianly intense and searching as the sex. There is something exhilarating about this fluent, elemental orgy of physicality and honesty, even if the ending, which feels over-thought, loses much of the conviction and zing of what's gone before and would have been better ruthlessly shortened.

At its best the film is relaxed and natural, as sex should be, and as the two leads are. Kumi Takiuchi and Tasuku Emoto aren't like porn stars or glamour-pusses. They're fit, lean, and ready. more like dancers or athletes. They're loose, at ease in their bodies and at ease with each other's bodies. The best action part is the early sequence where they move together from house to car to ramen shop as they get reacquainted and he resists. He plays this well and the attention is on him. The weakness is that the dialogue here is so blatantly expository. A set of arty black and white photos of the couple way back when isn't very convincing. Here and there, the score could have gone lighter on the strings. A shot of the pair now naked side by side on a bed looking out a window is classic.

They work out so hard at first there's abrasion and his penis requires a cold compress. He hasn't had sex with anyone for a while. He wasn't married long, and lost visitation rights to his six-year-old daughter. And he is out of work, only working part time. Over this hovers the disaster of 3/11 and another potential disaster disrupting Japanese lives and incomes.

The physical part of the story continues apace, and it rarely loses momentum or credibility. But the mental part, what we're offered to think about, is in the conversation in between. The sensuality is carried over into their meals. He cooks dinner for them, and every time looks delicious, though a hamburger dinner she requests makes her sick.

Of course it gradually develops that this happens because their passion was a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and that the groom's purpose is to give her a baby. (It's also a surprise to me to learn far along in the idyll that she hasn't been allowing Ken full penetration; they haven't used contraceptives.) Ken debunks the idea of marriage to have children. She is highly critical of him. She says he's never either had enough ambition nor been willing enough to take help from others.

Well along in their sex idyll, they attend a local night folk festival with lights and costumed figures all in masks. It's both beautiful and scary, and it becomes a nice objective correlative for the state of confusion they're in at this point, a nicely used bit of local color and a good relief from the bedroom-meal-bedroom round.

These chats that are so raw and direct make us wonder where things are going. Hovering over all is a time when he shifted away from her, then called and begged her "Die with me." They went to the edge of Mount Fuji volcano. The image of the mouth of the volcano is a recurrent one. Naturally this movie isn't about "it feels so good," though it does feel damn good; that just isn't the whole story, and despite its outward sense of happening in a bubble of sensual bliss, it all happens very clearly in a contemporary Japan where there are all kinds of worries.

It's interesting to compare this to Renais' structurally related Hiroshima mon amour, from 1959. It may have seemed wonderful a the time, but Marguerite Duras' dialogue feels pretentious today, and the love-making in the sane, or whatever it was (which Pauline Kael made fun of) is trumped by Arai's. This movie's sex is stylized too - he doesn't show us everything. But what he shows is so explicit, you're there. It's state-of-the art movie sex.

It Feels So Good / 火口のふたり, 115 mins., released in Japan Aug. 2019; in Taiwan Apr. 2020, Hong Kong May 2020. Screened for this review as part of this year's all online Japan Cuts (New York Jul. 2020).
The festival is entirely online this year. Anyone in the US can watch it, paying a small fee for each individual film, from July 17-30, 2020. Go HERE to access the films


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