Monday, July 07, 2014

NYAFF ’14: Au Revoir L’été

Koji Fukada, the acclaimed Hospitalite helmer, obviously digs French titles. However, teenage Sakuko’s experiences are distinctly Japanese. She will spend her summer vacation flirting with a Fukushima evacuee and studying for her university exams (supposedly). Yet, Fukada’s themes and vibe consciously pay homage to Eric Rohmer’s beach movies. For ten days, Sakuko will slyly observe and cautiously interact with the small seaside community in Fukada’s Au Revoir L’été (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 New York Film Festival.

Sakuko’s family takes a bit of explaining, even for her. Her Aunt Mikie has the same name as her mother, because they are step-sisters. While Aunt Mikie’s full sister is off touring Europe, they will house-sit her peaceful Rohmeresque home. Thus far, Sakuko has been something of an academic underachiever, so it is presumably hoped Aunt Mikie, an accomplished ethnologist specializing in Indonesian culture, will be a good influence on her.

Smart, attractive, and single, Aunt Mikie is indeed quite the role model, who attracts ex-lovers like a magnetic. First, it is Ukichi, the former village rogue, who has settled into a responsible job at the local love hotel to pay his daughter Tatsuko’s college tuition. He has also taken in his nephew Takashi, finding him work at the hotel, despite his minor status.

Eventually, Nishida also arrives for a guest lectureship at Tatsuko’s school, solely in hopes of picking up with Aunt Mikie again. However, she has clearly grown tired of the arrogant married man. She seems to prefer Ukichi’s earthy company, while Sakuko is similarly interested in Takashi. Yet, just as in Rohmer’s A Summer’s Tale, the timing for young whatever-it-might-be is always problematic.

It is almost bizarre how much Au Revoir looks like a mid-1980s Rohmer film, right down to the TV-ish aspect ratio. It shares a similarly pedestrian look and even obsessively marks the passing of each day with retro graphics. Of course, in each case the surface gloss is immaterial. It is the gentle depiction of human messiness that drives the films.

NYAFF’s 2014 Screen International Rising Star Award winner Fumi Nikaido gives a wonderfully natural performance as Sakuko. Remarkably subtle, she ranks as a worthy successor to Amanda Langlet in Pauline at the Beach and Summer’s Tale. Nevertheless, Mayu Tsuruta’s Aunt Mikie outshines everyone, making intelligence and maturity look seductive whenever she is on-screen.

As Takashi, Taiga convinces us boys really do mature slower than girls. So does Kanji Furutachi’s Ukichi, but there some world weary heft to his oddball persona. Producer and Japanese indie star Kiki Sugino also frequently gives the film a kick with her verve and attitude as Tatsuko.

Again, like Rohmer’s films, Au Revoir is deceptively light and talky. Yet, when viewers think back on it, they will have sense memories of those ten days in the summer house. Still, Fukada gives the master’s formula enough of a contemporary Japanese spin to make it feel like its own animal. Recommended for fans of chamber dramas and understated coming of age stories, Au Revoir L’été screens tomorrow (7/8) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of this year’s NYAFF.