Thursday, May 16, 2019

Hamaguchi’s Asako I & II

Nobody likes to hear about their partners ex, but it is especially weird for Ryohei Maruko, because Asako Izumiya previously dated his doppelganger, a handsome flake by the name of Baku Torii. It was a hard break-up for her, but if given half a chance, Maruko could be an affectionate and supportive rebound. Izumiya’s two relationships with the same (but different) man are chronicled in Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Asako I & II, which opens tomorrow in New York, at the Metrograph.

Izumiya and Torii meet cutely and quickly become passionately involved. He is a bit of a weirdo, but she is somewhat shy, so nobody’s perfect. He promises he will always return to her, even when he roams off impulsively. However, guess what? A few years later, Izumiya is working at a Tokyo coffee shop when she happens to meet Maruko, a hard-working sake marketer. He is the spitting image of Torii but his style is more conservative and his personality is considerably more earnest and grounded.

At first, Izumiya wants nothing to do with Maruko, but he and fate are persistent. Perhaps the need for human connection during 3/11 helps bring them together. Regardless, they definitely become an item, but Torii is still out there somewhere—and even Izumiya isn’t sure what that means for her and Maruko.

With its two-part structure and doppelganger premise, Asako I & II has some of the elements and vibe of a pre-scandal Hong Sang-soo movie. There is also similar levels of raging neuroses and a decent amount of drinking. However, AI&II resonates on a much deeper emotional level. It really taps into very human fears and angsts regarding the certainty of love and the possibility of betrayal.

Masahiro Higashide is quite remarkable giving two distinctly different performances as Maruko and Torii. The former is painfully reserved, yet viewers are always keenly aware of his emotional state. On the flip side, convincingly portrays Torii’s roguish charm and problematic eccentricities. Izumiya is even more socially awkward, but Erika Karata’s portrayal makes her mindset and utterly open book. Despite Izumiya’s frustrating decisions and the showcase role[s] for Higashide, AI&II could be described as a women’s film, in large measure due to the acerbic but down-to-earth performances of Rio Yamashita and Sairi Ito as Izumiya’s friends, Maya Suzuki and Haruyo Shima, respectively.

Arguably, Asako I & II reveals Hamaguchi as the missing link that connects Hong Sang-soo and Shunji Iwai. You may think you have seen plenty of relationship dramas already, but this one still holds a number of surprises. Very highly recommended, Asako I & II opens tomorrow (5/17) at the Metrograph.