Thursday, March 24, 2016

ND/NF ’16: Happy Hour

People complain with some justification, there are not enough quality film roles for women in their thirties. Ryûsuke Hamaguchi will darn near solve the problem single-handedly with his three hundred seventeen-minute interpersonal character drama, showcasing four remarkable lead actresses and a host of distinctive supporting players. It is about friendship. It is about trust. It is about five hours, plus. Granted, that is a serious time investment, but the emotional realism never drags in Hamaguchi’s Happy Hour (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New Directors/New Films.

Akari, Fumi, Sakurako, and Jun all look happy, especially when sharing each other company on picnics or similar outings. Yet, they are dealing with bitter disappointments in their personal lives. Akari the super-confident RN is a divorcee, but the other three appear to be satisfactorily married. However, it is soon revealed Jun has been engaged in a protracted legal battle to divorce her cold fish husband Kohei. Her decision to confide only in her childhood friend Sakurako temporarily causes dissension within the group, but they eventually rally behind Jun, even showing their support in court.

It turns out they might identify with Jun’s problems only too well. Both Fumi and Sakurako have become increasingly frustrated with their own spouses. Marriages and friendships will be put to the test when Ukai, a hipster self-help guru-gadfly performance artist enters their world. He lectures on balance and “finding one’s center,” but he is clearly a destabilizing influence.

Five hours and change might sound mighty long, but it gives Hamaguchi and screenwriter Hatano Koubou time to fully develop three extended centerpiece sequences that will dramatically change the characters’ trajectories. Through Ukai’s touchy-feely workshop, an overnight trip to the hot springs of Arima, and a public reading-Q&A featuring the young precocious writer Fumi’s editor husband is so suspiciously devoted to, we see the four women interact with each other in telling ways and witness their epiphanies.

Hamaguchi and his closely collaborating cast (alumni recruited from his own workshops presented in a Kobe arts collective) play it as straight as you ever can in life. For instance, there is a fair amount of Marin County Serial-style humor during Ukai’s workshop, but the quartet also get something out of their shared experience.

Sachie Tanaka, Hazuki Kikuchi, Maiko Mihara, and Rira Kawamura are all terrific as Akari, Sakurako, Fumi, and Jun, respectively. It is easy to see why they shared the best actress award at Locarno. They develop some richly complicated chemistry together, but they have several equally intriguing associations with supporting characters, such as Sakurako’s relationship with her mother-in-law, Akari’s mentorship-by-fire of a timid trainee nurse, and Jun’s auntie affection for Jun’s teen son, which truly deepen and enhance the film.

Hamaguchi and company capture the epicness of real life, while maintaining a grounded perspective. Yoshio Kitagawa’s cinematography favors naturalness over dazzle, but the four leads still absolutely light up the screen, while Umitaro Abe’s lovely chamber score gives it all a classy sheen. Yes, it is over five hours, but they are quality hours. Those who do not take the plunge will lose their standing to complain about women’s roles in cinema until the next five-hour film with four well developed leading parts for mature adult women comes around. Highly recommended for patrons of relationship dramas and Japanese cinema, Happy Hour screens in its entirety this Saturday (3/26) at MoMA and Sunday (3/27) at the Walter Reade, as part of ND/NF 2016.