Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Aug 28, 2020 1:52 pm 
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Hellish family road trip seen as redeeming comedy

Shin Adachi is not a conventional Japanese filmmaker or one who fits time-honored cultural norms of understatement and politeness. As a screenwriter he debuted in 100 Yen Love (Japan's 2015 Oscar submission) with the story of a thirty-something woman who became a boxer to help a guy who is a jerk. In his directorial debut 14 That Night he focused on a high school student whose ambition is to fondle the breasts of a porn star. This time, adapting his own novel, he depicts a highly unappealing version of himself as Gota (Gaku Hamada), a currently unsuccessful and sometimes lazy screenwriter whose big complaint is that he is not having "sex" (the Japanese use the same word) with his wife. The film focuses on a hellish and unenjoyable but also funny road trip the short, dumpy Gota drags his wife and TV-addicted daughter on to Kagawa Prefecture, on the island of Shikoku gathering information for a screenwriting assignment, a film about a high school girl who makes udon commissioned from Gota's agent as a vehicle for a financier’s mistress.

Chika (Azami Mizukawa), the shrewish wife, never hesitates to berate Gota. And she seems justified. He hasn't been much of a provider. He says what he's earned in the last year amounts to 500,000 Yen, which is less than $5,000. Now, he keeps bugging her to have sex with him, meanwhile indulging in porn through a virtual reality headset and getting stopped by police for looking up the dress of woman passed out drunk on the street. Perhaps it's no wonder Chika goes to comical (or wearying) efforts to save money. Not a pretty portrait either, Chika dresses like a slob and drinks to excess. She's also however currently the family breadwinner. The family dynamic is ultimately leavened by the presence of sweet young daughter Aki (Chise Niitsu), one positive fruit of this unglamorous ten-year marriage.

It all seems dull and sordid, but Adachi pointed out in an interview with James Hadfield of The Japan Times that Gaku Hamada was chosen because his diminutive, baby-faced look makes him ultimately hard for audiences to dislike. Adachi told Hadfield it's all based on his "actual experiences" but that the movie makes it (the behavior) "all look better." (Hadfield's aside is that he presumes the cramped, messy apartment used for the family here must surely be "rather less fancy" than Adachi's own current one.) It emerges that Adachi is a child of the eighties and kitchen sink TV series like Taichi Yamada's which Adachi saw as "unsparing" and "harsh" but also "big-hearted." A sweet-and-sour mixture is what Adachi strives for here, though with this autobiographical protagonist who's without shame or politeness in front of his wife and daughter and has drag-out fights with his wife, it can wind up being hard to find the big-heartedness or sympathy.

Adachi is a cutting-edge, increasingly in-demand Japanese writer and director who is seeking to take local cinema in fresh directions that make Peter DeBruge of Variety compare him to Alexander Payne and Noah Baumbach or, even more, Woody Allen. Deborah Young in her Hollywood Reporter review of this high-profile new film notes its "weird originality" and, underneath its "near-constant vulgarity," "a beating heart." Maybe so, but a lot of this seemed tiresome and icky to me. Woody Allen never had this kind of crude, kitchen-sink quality and at his best is much funnier than this as well. Note: the current subtitles are below par in quality.

A Beloved Wife 喜劇 愛妻物語, 117 mins., debuted at Tokyo in competition Nov. 2019. Screened for this review as part of the New York Asian Film Festival, presented virtually Aug. 28-Sept. 12, 2020.

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