Monday, October 02, 2017

NYFF ’17: Before We Vanish

What does it take to make a person hasten the extinction of their own species? In Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Problem, witnessing the cruelty of the Cultural Revolution causes a highly trained scientist to lose all her fellowship with humanity. In the case of Sakurai, it is the promise of an exclusive story to end all exclusives, but to be fair, he isn’t really human. He is a journalist. The question of what it truly means to be human is examined on philosophical and emotional levels in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Before We Vanish (trailer here), which screened as a Main Slate selection of the 55th New York Film Festival.

Narumi Kase’s salaryman husband Shinji has been acting weird ever since an alien parasite commandeered his body, but he is actually easier to live with. He is one of three alien scouts collecting information in advance of the apocalyptic invasion. The aliens don’t write bureaucratic reports. Instead, they retrieve entire human concepts, like “work” and “family” straight from human’s brains. Rather inconveniently, the process erases all comprehension of the concepts from the minds of their mere mortal subjects. However, alien Shinji will not do that to his human wife, because he has appointed her to serve as his “guide” during the recon mission.

While working the story of Akira Tachibana, a parasite-carrying teen suspected of gruesomely murdering her family, Sakurai is approached by the cocky young Amano, who asks the journalist to be his guide while he is on earth. Initially, he agrees to humor the strange slacker, but he soon finds himself in over his head. Sakurai is indeed helping to usher in the alien invasion, which horrifies him. Yet, he might be sufficiently curious and disillusioned to play out his part to the end.

Although recent films like Journey to the Shore and REAL have been criminally underappreciated by critics, nobody has been better at realizing intellectually challenging and psychologically sensitive science fiction. This is especially true of Vanish, which Kurosawa and Sachiko Tanaka adapted from a stage play by Tomohiro Maekawa. Their screenplay directly asks viewers to really question what things like love and family mean to us. Believe it or not, it also presents the organized Christianity in a highly favorable light. Yet, more than anything, it is a love story between Narumi and alien Shinji, who seems to identify and amplify the best of who human Shinji was, from the dormant kernel remaining inside him.

Masami Nagasawa is absolutely terrific as Narumi Kase. It is a grounded but surprisingly soulful portrayal of a woman facing unimaginably cosmic challenges as well as the undignified trials of everyday life, facing them on roughly equal footing. She also develops tremendous chemistry with Ryuhei Matsuda’s alien Shinji. It is a tricky part for him, because the body-snatched salaryman is necessarily distant and socially awkward, yet he subtly but perceptibly shows hints of his growing emotional attachment to Narumi.

Whether it works for you or not, it must be said Vanish ends like no other alien invasion film ever has before. Ultimately, it is a tragedy, but it gives us hope for humanity. Characteristically thoughtful and deeply moving, Before We Vanish is easily one of the best science fiction films of the year. Enthusiastically recommended, Before We Vanish next screens tonight (10/2) as part of Beyond Fest and October 21st and 22nd during the Chicago International Film Festival, following its sold out Main Slate screenings at this year’s NYFF.