Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jul 14, 2023 9:27 pm 
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Seeking family

Japan may not quite be where the West is on making gay films. Its macho culture is not where Hollywood is on gayness. Reviewing Egoist, Mark Schilling of Japan Times ("Layered LGBTQ drama offers bittersweet romance"), calling it "groundbreaking," comments that though Tom Hanks and Robin Williams scored points as famous straight actors playing gay characters in Hollywood movies, only straight Japanese actors (or at great risk closeted ones) could think of playing the roles of Kosuke (Ryohei Suzuki), the gay showboating fashion magazine editor, and Ryuta, the gay financially strapped young physical trainer here.

Egoist lives partly in an earlier era for gay films and partly not as indicated by the facts that it has graphic sex scenes one would not see in a movie of the time of Fassbinder, but its somewhat stilted and schematic plot seems Fassbinderish. One might see this as François Ozon without the wit. The two men are easy contrasts, poised to satisfy different needs. Kosuke, the successful fashion magazine editor who has made it with the showcase apartment and designer-clothes-stuffed dressing room and dining-out rat pack, feels empty inside because his mother died when he was young. He has a remote relationship with his father , a cute, bespectacled oldster. The boyish, forever smiling Ryuta (Hio Miyazawa), who Kosuke hires as a physical trainer he knows to be cute and gay has neither education (even in physical training, though they meet when Kosuke hires him for that) nor financial security, but he has a mom he lives with and cares for. So Kosuke can fund Ryuta, and Ryuta and his mom can be a surrogate family for Kosuke.

This seems like a Fassbinder situation but Fassbinder would not have dared the full-on graphic sex scene director Matsunaga presents between the two men within the first twenty minutes. The bigger, stronger, older, richer Kosuke appears to be the bottom, the younger, more delicate seeming and presumably less experienced Ryuta starts things off by giving Kosuke a peck on the mouth out on the street and is the top, more than once in different positions, including in the shower.

Egoist goes out of its way to be full-on and up to date in its sex scenes. And there turns out to be plot logic in a surprise: browsing on a gay sex app Kosuke discovers Ryuta has another line of work as a call boy. That has to be gotten out of the way, Ryuta, confronted by Kosuke posing as a new trick, accepting a monthly stipend that allows the young man to rely on a less risqué and less lucrative job, which for some reason turns out to be working at a restaurant. Kosuke also seems to be a connoisseur of food: he's seen describing an exquisite creamy dessert to some other men (an intense little set piece), and another time gently admonishing Ryuta, perhaps only fit for relatively unskilled labor in a professional kitchen, for gulping rather than sipping an unspecified special white wine.

Obviously the high pitch of this film determines that this couple are not going to settle down to a life of calm domesticity sharing Ryuta's mother (Sawako Agawa, whom Schilling calls "wonderfully understated." She is certainly wonderful, later cooly deadpan and stoical. Ryuta takes Kosuke to dinner at the humble flat he shares with her, but nothing is openly revealed or discussed. The men's love may be obvious, but it cannot speak it name. Later Kosuke's financial support of Ryuta continues, though it's not clear how it's working.

The action keeps showing Kosuke acting as Ryuta's sponsor as much as his lover, now buying him a car so he can drive his mother to medical treatment she now needs. One day, just in time as it turns out, the two offhandedly declare mutual love. But another day Ryuta doesn't answer and Kosuke, knocking on the door, learns from Ryuta's mother that he has suddenly died. Kosuke breaks down at Ryuta's funeral and he and Ryuta's mother have the frank talk they couldn't have at the dinner.

This is another up to date moment. She turns out to have thoroughly liberal, understanding views and to have had a little conversation with her son after the dinner. She guessed the relationship and said it was important only that you love, not whom you love. Now, in one of the film's most intense and Japanese scenes, there is a verbal struggle at the little dinner table where Kosuke ends by literally begging Ryuta's mother to accept his financial support and explains that he needs this.

It's in the scenes between Kosuke and Ryuta's mother that the film, however "groundbreaking" in Japanese terms for its bold gay sex, becomes most interesting and most specific (and the meaning of the title emerges). And it's here that the rather plain and masculine Ryohei Suzuki as Kosuke, not altogether convincing as a gay fashionista (except when looking in mirrors or making up his eyebrows), becomes a real person as the helpful loving friend of an impecunious but outspoken older woman. These final moments are on a whole other level.

Egoist/エゴイスト, 120 mins., debuted at Tokya Oct. 27, 2022, released theatrically in Japan Feb. 10, 2023., also showing at Hong Kong, Taiswan, Italy, and Provincetown. Screened for this review as part of the 2023 New York Asian Film Festival.
Presented in the 20223 New York Asian Film Festival
Saturday, July 15
8:30 PM Standby Only
Walter Reade Theater

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