Monday, July 11, 2011

Japan Cuts ’11: A Liar and a Broken Girl

Imagining the Nana manga with a horrendous serial killer backstory will give you a vague idea of Ma-chan’s life. She suffered unimaginable ordeals while the prisoner of a psychopath and might be becoming something of a monster herself. However, the return of Mi-kun, her would be protector during her captivity will be a somewhat stabilizing influence in Natsuki Seta’s knee-buckling A Liar and a Broken Girl (trailer here), which screens during the 2011 Japan Cuts New York Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema now underway at the Japan Society.

High school student Ma-chan, as she refers to herself, lives alone in an apartment strewn with toys and candy. The absence of her parents will eventually be explained in excruciating detail. When the long lost Mi-kun reappears, he finds two small kidnapped children in her bedroom. It is not much of a leap to assume he suspects Ma-chan is also behind the recent rash of unsolved serial killings. Fortunately, his presence has a somewhat calming influence on her. Rather than revisiting their torments on the two children, they start caring for them, almost like foster-parents, except their arrangement bears no resemblance to responsible reality. Mi-kun’s ultimate intentions remain somewhat murky as well.

Like a reckless daredevil, Liar veers wildly between stylized hyper-cute magical realism in the present day to viscerally horrific flashbacks of the brutality meted out by the unnamed psychopath. No matter how unsettling Ma-chan’s behavior gets, it is tragically understandable in light of her past. While Mi-kun’s frequent third-wall breaking “I’m lying” asides would seem to be post-modern spell-breakers, but they add another layer subterfuge, since these are more often than not lies he tells to himself.

When watching Liar, it is painful clear just how inadequately most serial killer thrillers and horror movies address the psychological ramifications of their violence. After enduring an ordeal like Ma-chan’s, one does not just occasionally wake up in a cold sweat, like Neve Campbell in the Scream franchise. To survive, Ma-chan has completely retreated from reality, creating fantasy personas for both herself and Mi-kun. As an indictment of human cruelty, Liar is absolutely blistering. Yet, it also holds a pretty darn shocking twist in reserve for the third act.

Granted, it is hard to ignore certain practical questions, like just how does Ma-chan afford to live alone in what looks like a relatively upscale apartment? Yet, Liar’s blunt force impact overwhelms such pedantic quibbles. Though required to operate within a relatively narrow range of expression, Aya Omasa is both haunting and unnerving as Ma-chan (while the young actress playing her in flashbacks is absolutely heartrending). Shota Sometani is also quite convincing as Mi-kun, suggesting a maelstrom of internal conflict, the likes of which will only be clear after the big revelations late in the film.

Liar could never be produced in America. Big studios and indie filmmakers would be equally uncomfortable with the genre mash-ups and its uncompromising honesty. Even the edgy attitude distinguishing Kyoka Suzuki’s supporting turn as the psychiatrist Dr. Sakashita would probably be replaced with a cloying Robin Williams doing his play-it-safe Good Will Hunting shtick (which would be real shame, since she is quite good and rather attractive in the part).

This is what film festivals are for. With Liar, Japan Cuts has done it again. If not quite as devastating as last year’s Confessions, it is a boldly daring film (ranking with Parade, another standout from 2010). Anyone who takes film seriously should make a point of seeing it when it screens at the Japan Society this Saturday (7/16).