Sunday, July 02, 2017

NYAFF ’17: Dawn of the Felines

Yes, this is another one of those movies from Nikkatsu, but you would hardly know it from watching. Technically, these women are escorts, not prostitutes, but that is only a legal-semantic distinction. Regardless, when they ply their trade it is often unseemly and sometimes downright alarming, but never titillating. Human nature is as grubby as ever in Kazuya Shiraishi’s Dawn of the Felines (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Ironically, Masako frequently lacks a bed to sleep in, because the debt-laden former professional is essentially homeless. She usually sleeps in internet café booths, but Takada, a financial self-sufficient hikikomori client, extends an open invitation to sleep over, with no quid pro quos. It sounds like a good deal, but something about the way he embraces the worst impulses of the internet makes her wary.

Rie is actually the only housewife employed by the agency supposedly offering wayward home-makers. She caught her husband cheating, so she now secretly returns the favor multiple times over, but without any emotional entanglements. At least that was the plan, but instead she draws a grieving widower as a regular client. It is not clear what he wants from her, but it is not sex. That’s just not happening for him anymore.

Yui seems like the perkiest and most upbeat of the focal trio, but the bruises on her little boy Kenta suggest otherwise. She will disappear for days, leaving Kenta in the care of a veritable stranger, but that Craigslist sitter is easily the most redemptive man in the film. Thanks to him, Dawn cannot be accurately characterized as anti-male, but he is mistreated rather badly for his efforts. No good deed.

If any of this turns you on seek professional help immediately. The title deliberately echoes the 1972 naughty Nikkatsu Night of the Felines and Kazuko Shirakawa, the star of the Apartment Wife franchise, appears in a cameo, but the tone of Dawn is much closer to Michael Glawogger’s observational expose, Whores’ Glory. Best known for gritty crime dramas, like Twisted Justice and The Devil’s Path, Shiraishi brings the same sensibilities to bear when portraying the oldest profession.

Furthermore, these are a far cry from the sort of performances you typically find in exploitation films. Juri Ihata’s portrayal of Masako is richly complex and rigorously unsentimental. She plays her tough and smart, but also quite vulnerable. Satsuki Maue effectively brings out the Jekyll and Hyde in Yui, but the one-named Michie probably takes the honors with her mature yet frequently surprising work as Rie.

This is a film that transcends it genre, but not the Nikkatsu formula. It openly invites viewers to sympathize with its characters and bemoan the demeaning nature of their business, but the sex scenes still come along like clockwork. In fact, they rather help reinforce the message. Recommended for those interested in women’s issues and the R-P sub-genre (two sets of viewers who don’t overlap all that often), Dawn of the Felines screens on the Fourth of July at the Walter Reade, as part of the 2017 NYAFF.