Tuesday, June 30, 2009

NYAFF ’09: All Around Us

Despite its peaceful reputation, Japan evidently also has its share of violent criminals. During 1990’s the Japanese economy crashed, causing further ripples of disillusionment throughout society. As a courtroom sketch artist, the aimless Kanao sees the worst of it, while struggling with his own domestic drama in Hashiguchi Ryosuke’s All Around Us (trailer here), which screens during the New York Asian Film Festival.

Kanao is not exactly adored by his wife Shoko’s family. Kanao has been content working in a shoe repair store, with little future prospects, until a friend simply hands him his courtroom sketching gig. Shoko, his art school sweetheart, has been more career-motivated and has tried to impose order on their marital relations. However, a personal tragedy sends her spiraling down into depression, which might tear their marriage asunder if the happy-go-lucky Kanao is not able to provide Shoko the emotional support she needs.

Perhaps Kanao’s work has somewhat desensitized him to grief, since he sees mothers mourning children killed in unfathomable ways in court on a regular basis. However, it is more likely that his emotionally distant persona is the result of his peculiar life experiences. Like Shoko, he also experienced a kind of paternal abandonment, but will never have the opportunity for closure she eventually seeks.

There seems to be a recurring motif of problematic fathers or family patriarchs in several Japanese dramas recently imported onto American movie screens, including Yojiro Takita’s Academy Award-winning Departures, Kore-eda Hirokazu’s soon-to-be-released Still Walking, Yukihiko Tsutsumi’s Happily Ever After, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata. While it would surely be a stretch to read anything sociological into such a trend, Around certainly fits the pattern.

Director-screenwriter-editor Ryosuke offers some subtle social commentary in Around. Yet the film is more concerned with its closely observed portrait of a marriage suffering under prolonged strain. To survive, the formerly assertive Shoko and passive Kanao must essentially reverse roles, but the question remains, how much can individuals truly change? He also adds some intriguing color and eccentric supporting characters through his use of the courtroom milieu. Emoto Akira is a particular standout as the appealingly crusty veteran print reporter Yasuda. “A sketcher?” he sneers with ill-concealed contempt when first meeting the clueless Kanao.

Though real-life graphic artist and author Lily Franky might seem like the lead as Kanao, the movie really belongs to Kimura Tae as Shoko. Her precipitous mental decline is frighteningly realistic and her anguish is palpable. It is an intense, heartrending screen performance.

Around is a quiet film, but a heavy one. It confronts head-on the intimate pitfalls of marriage with some scaldingly honest dialogue and its remarkably genuine lead performances. It screens July 2nd and July 5th at the Japan Society as part of the 2009 New York Asian Film Festival.