Friday, June 26, 2015

NYAFF ’15: Pale Moon

Currently, the exchange rate is 120-some Yen to the Dollar. It was something similar in the mid-1990s. Although we know we should be adjusting in our heads, the sums Rika Umezawa embezzles from her private banking clients still look staggeringly high. It is hard to sustain such recklessness indefinitely, but Umezawa will have a heck of a run in Daihachi Yoshida’s Pale Moon (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 New York Asian Film Festival.

Umezawa looks a far cry from John Dillinger. The former housewife has only recently returned to the workforce, responding to the bank’s recruitment program. She is attractive, but extremely shy and reserved. Her first inherited client, a lecherous old tight-wad might have been troublesome for her to deal with, if not for the intercession of his college age grandson, Kota Hirabayashi. Still, she manages to sell him on a few starter investments.

In the early days, Umezawa’s performance is quite promising. Yet, her husband continues to patronize and underestimate her. Of course, he just assumes she will accompany him when he is transferred to China, but she rather scandalously opts to stay in Japan. After all, she has secret affair with Hirabayashi to enjoy. She also redirected some of his Scrooge-like grandfather’s money to pay for his tuition. That turns out to be the sort of thing that is hard to stop once you start. Soon, Umezawa is falsifying documents and intercepting bank statements to maintain her lifestyle. Meanwhile, her senior colleague Yoriko Sumi starts investigating her suspicions, hoping to find something that would forestall her forced retirement.

Moon has the obvious feminist angle and the zeitgeisty financial crisis theme, but it is rather more than either sort of issue-driven drama. Thanks to Rie Miyazawa’s absolutely extraordinary lead performance, it is utterly impossible to pigeon hole Umezawa as some sort of Thelma or Louise in a business suit. Although she has good reasons to feel put-out, she is not a victim, but more of an existential heroine. Eventually she will even question the soundness of fiat currency and the legitimacy of Platonic reality. At that point, the third act takes a rather strange turn, but Yoshida lays enough groundwork so that it seems almost logical rather than jarring.

Miyazawa owns this film lock, stock, and barrel, but her greatest competition for the spotlight fittingly comes from Yuna Taira, who appears as the fourteen year old Umezawa in flashbacks. The young screen performer has no shortage of presence, yet still projects a sense of earnest vulnerability she shares with Miyazawa. Admittedly, it is tough being a guy in Moon, but Renji Ishibashi knocks us off-balance from time to time as the curmudgeonly old Kozo Hirabayashi. There is also something compellingly sad about Satomi Kobayashi’s performance as Sumi, a somewhat kindred spirit to Umezawa, who has adopted the diametrically opposite survival strategy.

Special NYAFF Guest Yoshida helms with great sensitivity and a subtly dark sense of humor, which distilled produce a truly distinctive vibe. This is a film that defies labels (is it a crime drama or a work of social criticism?) and up-ends expectations. Moon absolutely does not leave the audience in a “safe place,” but it is strangely satisfying spot to end. Throughout it all, Miyazawa is superhumanly engaging as Umezawa. Highly recommended for sophisticated audiences, Pale Moon screens this coming Monday (6/29) at the Walter Reade, as part of NYAFF’s mini-focus on Yoshida.