Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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YUJIRO HARUMOTO: A BALANCE 由宇子の天秤 (2020) - 2021 New York Asian Film Festival



Suppose what you're making a documentary about happens to you

Asghar Farhadi has been mentioned and the ending struck me as having the stunning unresolved finality of Michael Haneke. This is to say Yujiro Harumoto's sophomore feature marks him as a significant talent, the kind who takes on big issues in complex ways. The linear narrative, weaving through several threads, starts with protagonist Yuko (Kumi Takiuchi), a very serious, quietly determined, and rather beautiful documentary filmmaker interviewing a man after he plays a flute by an urban-side river (the opening music is diegetic, and the rest is so austere there is no score). The parallelism that develops as the story line proceeds is a little gratuitous, and the whole film, which could have worked well as a miniseries, is pretty long. But A Balance has the excitement and the fascination of an investigative thriller with profound moral and social overtones. It moves at a measured pace but it's compulsive and propulsive.

Yuko is the final stages of shooting her documentary about a school scandal that led to two suicides - first of a schoolgirl, HIromi, accused of having sex with her teacher, which he denied, then of Mr. Yano, the teacher, who left a note saying his death is his protest against the injustice of the accusation against him. The flautist, Mr. Hasebe (Yuya Matsuura), was the girl's aggrieved father. Yuko seeks to tell the whole story, without taking sides, and also chronicle the repercussions from sensationalist media coverage that has left waves of ruined lives all around this scandal. The result is to be broadcast on television. Her stern encounters with her photographer and her producer (Yota Kawase) by the riverside in that first sequence show how principled and intense she is. But this is Japan and voices are never raised. There will be many telling little debates between Yuko and her producer, the latter a kind of middle man between idealistic filmmaker and business-savvy television executives.

Bureaucratic controls are strong, though, and we immediately see Yuko's desire to tell a complex story thwarted when in a meeting the suits of the TV station excise and rearrange lines of a the filmed interview to simplify scenes and make this simply a story about bullying: Mr. Hasebe's criticisms of mass media won't do.

Yuko seems wedded to her work, but her subtly hennaed hair has an elegant sweep and her no-nonsense clothes, if they're a hair shirt, look very good on her. But she's no movie-glamorous crusading journalist whose project is window dressing: the whole focus is on the unfolding information. on doing the work.

Yuko has other work as well, however, because she helps out as a tutor at the cram school of her father. Mr. Kinoshita (the meek-looking Ken Mitsuishi). One day she helps a girl student, Mei (Yumi Kawai), who's having a "heavy period." (Yumi Kawai, as Mei, is a quiet and subdued bombshell with dreamy eyes and bee-sting lips, a diminutive Asian Léa Seydoux.) It turns out Mei is pregnant, and she tells Yuko it's Mr. Kinoshita, her father, who is responsible. This could be the end of everything, the school, her father's livelihood, her career.

Yuko is still deep in her documentary. We've seen her do several very tricky and dramatic interviews with Mr. Yano's mother, Toshiko (Mitsuko Oka), who is now on the run, forced to move from one clandestine flat to another as her whereabouts are revealed on the internet. Yuko's reaction to the Mei situation is a reversal. Of course she gets her father to confess to his guilt. And whenever she faces someone in a compromising situation, her recording device comes out, and that habit remains. But of course she does not want to reveal Mei's situation to anyone, with "a balance" or otherwise.

Mei wants no one to know, least of all her father (Masahiro Umeda), a flaky young man who went to art school and sells contact lenses. Yuko embarks on damage control, consulting with a doctor friend - in his car - about the possibility of obtaining an illegal abortion drug used by immigrants that would keep Mei's pregnancy completely off the record. She also roundly rejects her father's pondered decision to confess his guilt. This idea, she sees at once, is both naive and egotistical on his part. Yuko and Mei become strange allies; and she she even starts being at Mei's flat and knowing her father. The flat is a mess, and he has been no kind of father, but he seems at a loss rather then evil.

Yuko's main goal here isn't to help her father or Mei, but to protect her documentary. In the end, doing that becomes more and more complicated, not because of personal matters but her unwillingness to compromise and the station's desire both to protect individuals and to tell a predigested story. The thrilling, unfinished ending shows Harumoto's flair for drama and his ability to hold us in the palm of his hand to the very last instant: brilliant. I hope it's not long before there's another film from this very talented writer-director.

A Balance由宇子の天秤, 153 mins., debuted at Pingyao, Oct. 11, 2020, and showed Oct. 25 at Busan (sharing the New Currents award with Three by Pak Ruslan); at Tokyo (FILMX) Nov. 2020; at Singapore Dec., at Macao (internet) Dec., at the Berlinale Mar. 2021 (Panorama section), at Tehran (the Fajr Festival) Mar. 2021, at Pyeongchang Jun. 2021, at Fribourg (Switzerland) Jul. 2021; it was screened for this review as part of the NY Asian Film Festival where it was shown Aug. 12, 2021.


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