Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Feb 25, 2012 7:17 pm 
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Oshiro and Koki Maeda in I Wish

Watching bullet trains, choosing the world

In 2004 Koreeda made a wonderful but sad film about children, Nobody Knows. I Wish is another one, nearly as fine, but much happier -- though again it has children dealing with unreliable parents (just not as bad). There are superb scenes in which kids are charming and real. But I Wish moves around much more than Nobody Knows. In that one, four siblings are abandoned together by their radically irresponsible mother and must try to survive in their apartment on their wits. This gives Nobody Knows, perforce, unity of place. I Wish skips around, as it must, because this time there are two brothers who are now living with separate parents. At one or two points I Wish says a little bit too much in the mouths of babes, but it also contains moments of such beauty you wish they would never end. Probably some of the magic comes from the fact that the film stars real-life brothers Koki and Ohshirô Maeda who already had their own sibling comedy act, Maeda/Maeda.

Are Japanese kids cuter and happier than other children? Sometimes it seems so. Whatever the case, these qualities feed into the magic moments that abound in Koreeda's new film. I Wish isn't an unqualified success. It may ride too much on its cuteness and its magic. Or Koreeda may have been too reluctant to cut any of the cute or magical moments, which -- due to his success as a director of children and documentary filmmakers and the charm of his young cast -- kept multiplying. As a result his film meanders and sprawls. But it's possible meandering and sprawling are Koreeda's way no matter what his subject is. He isn't a director who likes to move fast. Note how patiently he wanders through the long summer day in his 2008 Still Walking. The meandering is deceptive. The film builds, and when it's got all its force together it hits you with a quiet emotional wallop. Koreeda creeps up on you.

But I Wish is deceptively random-seeming and deceptively simple and "accessible." There is as much order here as there is complexity. This may be Koreeda's most accessible film but it's up with his best and most original work. And what it's all about may not become clear till later.

The story focuses on a child's urban legand: the idea that if you can see two new bullet trains crossing paths the wish you make then will come true. The two brothers talk on the phone. They're apart now because their parents couldn't get along. Their mother Nozomi (Nene Ohtsuka) found their musician father Kenji (Joe Odagiri) totally unreliable, so she moved back in with her grandparents (Isao Hashizume, Kirin Kiki) to work in their little supermarket as a cashier, taking the older brother, Koichi (Koki Maeda), a sixth grader. The small but lively Ryunosuke (Ohshiro Maeda) goes to the big city of Fukuoka with his dad, a rock musician who's never quite successful enough to do without other work but can't stick to a conventional job. We get a few looks at the parents' former squabbles, but mostly we focus on Koichi and Ryo. It seems as though it's Koichi who most wants to get back together. A chubby, perhaps more staid chap, Koichi may be a bit jealous of Ryo's new friends, who include the prettiest girl in class, Emi (Kyara Uchida). He chafes at life with the grandparents, and is annoyed by the volcanic ash of Kagoshima, where he now lives. Obviously life with their laid-back dad and his band-mates is cooler, even if life with mom is more reliable.

Koreeda is skillful at managing three plots: the life of Ryo, the life of Koichi, and their project to meet midway to observe the two bullet trains and make their wishes, which finally takes over as a group "road picture" with a subtle kind of "resolution" that avoids conventional feel-good aspects with moments that may make you cry but none of the saccharine tear-jerker outcome ordinary filmmakers would have made with this plot outline.

Part of the time is spent following Koichi and his classmates and their dislike of a teacher (Hiroshi Abe) and crush on a school librarian (Masami Nagasawa). Meanwhile Ryo becomes the pet of a group of girls including an aspiring young actress s (Kyara Uchida) whose failed actress mom (Yui Natsukawa) keeps telling her daughter she will fail. Back with Koichi, grandma is learning hula dancing and grandpa and his cronies drink and tweak an old-fashioned (comically tasteless) cake recipe which some think can be sold as a novelty tie-in with the new bullet train.

None of this matters so much in dramatic terms except for the way it all creates a three-dimensional world going in various directions linked by the bullet trains and the boys' bullet train project. The scenes of the children are particularly sprightly and winning, and the progress of the film is punctuated by the linking cell phone chats between the two brothers. The wish-making meeting involves fellow classmates, money-raising (the tickets are expensive), permissions for a 24-hour absence from school, and a lot of logistical planning. The wish-making project takes on a metaphorical meaning: the journey becomes the destination. Making the wish as the bullet trains cross paths turns into one of those childhood myths, like the tooth fairy. In the event, the boys find themselves discovering a new outlook, or choosing "the world," as Koichi puts it. But that thought and those final sequences are just something to hang your hat on. I'm sure the deepest truths of I Wish are buried in the laughter of classmates, the cell-phone conversations, or Ryo's fava bean-growing. This is film that will obviously profit from repeated viewings.

The score by the soft rock group Quruli may seem more ingratiating than necessary, but it helps underline the youthful good spirits that prevail; maybe Koreeda is consciously creating an antidote this time to the deeply downbeat feel ofNobody Knows. The reassurance of I Wish is that parents in modern urban society can part without the children's being left abandoned or desperate. These kids are good at fending for themselves but they also have good adult support.

I Wish (128 minutes, cinematography by Yutaka Yamazaki) debuted at Toronto September 2011 after a June theatrical release in Japan, and has been at numerous other festivals, including Rotterdam. It enters French cinemas in April 2012. It was also included in the Film Society of Lincoln Center's 2012n Film Comment Selects series shown at the Walter Reade Theater, where it was screened for this review. Public FCS showings were Sunday, February 19 at 6:15PM and Monday, February 20 at 8:45PM

Magnolia Pictures will distribute the film in the US commercially and it opens in New York May 11, 2012 at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and Angelika Film Center.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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