Thursday, July 13, 2017

Japan Cuts ’17: At the Terrace

These neurotic bourgeoisie party guests would feel at home in the caustic plays of Yasmina Reza, but they live in Japan, the home of the deferential apology. That makes it especially awkward when they tear into each other or make improper advances in At the Terrace (trailer here), Kenji Yamauchi’s deliciously cutting adaptation of his stage play, which screens during the 2017 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film in New York.

You know how they say parties always end up in the kitchen? Apparently, when you have servants to handle the food, like the well-heeled Soejimas, you wind up on the well-furnished terrace instead. This was an affair for their various work colleagues and clients, so it was not supposed to be fun. Nevertheless, a handful of stragglers will get pretty drunk.

The comedy of miscommunication starts when the hostess Kazumi Soejima busts late-comer Tanoura for not so subtly leering at Haruko Saito, the wife of one of two Saitos at the party. While her husband is hale and hearty, the other Saito remains in a weakened condition from the gastric-bypass surgery that has made him unrecognizable to the guests who had met him before. To compound poor Tanoura’s embarrassment, Madame Soejima will expose his infatuation to her husband the assorted Saitos, who all try to be decent and forgiving about it. Nevertheless, when Tanoura nervously praises her sleek alabaster arms, his compliment will be flogged like a dead horse and brutally driven into the ground.

You might expect a wry comedy of bad manners like Terrace would suffer in translation, but it is still incisively funny. This is the sort of film that we can’t help laughing at, even as we wince at the characters’ discomfort. The details of their lives are very Japanese, but their macro issues are still quite universal.

The entire ensemble is uniformly strong, but my oh my, is Kei Ishibashi ever a force to be reckoned with as Kazumi, the maybe not so hospitable hostess. You have to see her sawing her guests off at the knees to fully understand the acerbic sting of her performance. Yet, as Haruko (the one with the arms), Kami Hiraiwa hangs with her and maybe even one-ups her, when they start verbally mixing it up. On the other end of the spectrum, understated Takashi Okabe is quietly poignant as the newly thin and divorced Saito.

Despite the one set, nobody can accuse Terrace of being stagy, because it crackles with energy. In some ways, it can be compared to Reza, Alan Ayckbourn, and Edward Albee, but Yamuchi’s characters are totally original and completely believable. Very highly recommended, At the Terrace screens this Sunday (7/16) at the Japan Society, as part of Japan Cuts.