Thursday, June 29, 2017

NYAFF ’17: Double Life

Philosophy isn’t even a scientistic pseudo-social science like psychology or sociology. Yet, Tama Shiraishi’s dissertation advisor assigns her some field work anyway. Based on his suggestion, she will follow a random stranger with whom she has no prior connection, to learn about their daily routines and closely held secrets. That in turn should help shed light on what gives life meaning. At least that is the theory. Whether it pans out or not, Shiraishi will experience considerably more than she bargained for in Yoshiyuki Kishi’s Double Life (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Shinohara is the dread terror of the philosophy department, but he seems to have a soft spot for Shiraishi. Regardless, he has a keen interest in the results of her dissertation concept. Initially, Shiraishi was reluctant, but fate presents her neighbor Ishizaka as a perfect subject. He is a senior editor at a publishing house, who comes from family money. Outward appearances suggest he is a model family man with a pretty wife and a cute daughter. However, Shiraishi soon discovers Ishizaka has a somewhat jealous mistress on the side.

While Shiraishi is tailing the book editor, she witnesses a rather awkward argument between the secret lovers, even more awkward confrontation with his wife, and the downright ugly aftermath. Finally noticing his silent shadow, Ishizaka blames her for all his woes, which really doesn’t seem fair, but maybe there is a grain of truth to it. Yes, he should really look in the mirror first, but perhaps there is an element of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty at play here: particles act differently when they are observed.

In this case, French photographer Sophie Calle’s “following strangers” work is more of a touchstone than Heisenberg, Gödel, or any postmodernist theorists. Yet, ironically, viewers will never feel like they know Mr. Ishizaka very well, nor will they particularly care to. Instead, his case study becomes a mirror that reflects the loneliness and disappointments of other characters, particularly Shiraishi and Shinohara.

In fact, Shinohara emerges as one of the most significant, emotionally wrenching figures in the story, thanks to Lily Franky’s performance. It is a wonderfully subtle turn that gracefully evolves over the course of the picture. He also develops some acutely poignant chemistry with Aoba Kawai, as his romantic partner.

Yet, Mugi Kadowaki matches him step for step and then some (given her considerably greater screen time) as Shiraishi. It is a quiet but painful revealing performance. Frankly, she will leave viewers feel exhausted, but not bereft or deflated.

In some ways, Double Life is the polar opposite of The Circle, obviously starting with its vastly superior quality. Thematically, Kishi’s adaptation of Mariko Koike’s novel takes issue with the crudely moralistic notion we act better when we know other people are watching—or rather we need our grubby little secrets and betrayals to keep us human. It is a gently provocative, wonderfully mature and assured film. Very highly recommended, Double Life screens this coming Monday (7/3) at the Walter Reade, as part of the 2017 NYAFF.