Thursday, July 17, 2014

Japan Cuts ’14: Greatful Dead

Japan is the nation that brought us the hikikomori phenomenon and Nami is grateful, so to speak. However, she is not interested in garden variety shut-ins. It is the seriously cracked loners, or “solitarians” as she dubs them, that fascinate her. Her unhealthy obsession will take on dangerous dimensions in Eiji Uchida’s Greatful Dead (yes, that is how it is spelled, trailer here), which screens as part of this year’s Japan Cuts: the New York Festival ofContemporary Japanese Film.

Nami’s parents were highly flawed. Her mother’s compulsive third world child sponsorship never left her time for her own daughters. In contrast, their father was only interested in her, so when she abandoned her family to live the Mother Theresa lifestyle, it essentially killed him inside. Eventually, he takes up with a seductive new mistress Akko-chan, but she hardly helps his state of mind. At least he has a lot of money to leave Nami.

Now in her twenties, the privileged Nami consumes like mad, while her sister revels in the ordinariness of her stable family life. Nami wants no part of it. She prefers documenting the sad and sometimes twisted lives of her solitarians. Her latest seems to hold special meaning for her. Mr. Shiomi was evidently once a man of some position, but now he shuns his family, leading the sort of aggressively anti-social existence Nami finds so charming. However, when Korean evangelical Su Yong starts to reform and uplift Shiomi, it threatens to spoil Nami’s fun. Extreme measures will be taken in response.

In a way, Greatful asks which is the stronger force, consumerism or Christian fellowship. Surprisingly, it treats the latter quite fairly. However, it takes viewers to an existentially dark and bloody place, like nothing one would ever see in Evangelical cinema. Still, Su Yong is unquestionably the film’s most sympathetic and virtuous character, played with deep sensitivity by Korean indie star Kim Kkobbi.

Nonetheless, Kumi Takiuchi completely dominates the film, effortlessly transitioning from eccentric kookiness to raging sociopathic ferocity. It is an unsettling performance, because she shows the little girl inside Nami, lashing out for attention. Likewise, Takashi Sasano is pretty fierce himself, convincingly portraying Shiomi’s personal evolution and his sudden snap back into brutishness, courtesy of Nami.

Greatful is absolutely chilling at times, but its morbid sense of humor takes the worst of the edge off. It is quite cleverly constructed and Uchida’s execution is unflaggingly tight and tense. It is not what you would call “feel good,” yet Uchida someone leaves us some ambiguity to clutch at. Highly recommended for those who take their horror-comedies unsweetened, with a side order of social commentary, Greatful Dead screens tomorrow (7/18) at the Japan Society as part of the 2014 Japan Cuts.