Sunday, July 09, 2017

NYAFF ’17: Happiness

The human mind is an incredibly complex machine. It can protect us by burying painful memories or betray us through dementia. Kanzaki has developed a device that will help it make up for its mistakes.  A depressed provincial town gets its spirit back when he helps its citizens remember their happiest moments, but he has a secret agenda in Sabu’s Happiness (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 New York Asian Film Festival.

Kanzaki’s retro-futuristic helmet is the product of a marriage between science and traditional Chinese medicine. It stimulates the right lobes to trigger perfect recall of the wearer’s happiest moment ever. At least that is the feature Kanzaki shows off when he somberly blows into town. Soon, all the demoralized senior citizens and disillusioned bureaucrats feel like they have a new lease on life. However, to secure the town’s future, Kanzaki will have to reach the younger generation too. In fact, that was the whole point. It turns out reaching one twentynothing is his reason for being there.

Happiness, a truly ironic title, is the second film about mysterious strangers playing games with villagers’ memories, by means of wild-looking helmet, but it is far darker and more realistic than Chen Yu-hsun’s Village of No Return. It also inspires deep, viscerally-felt sympathy for the outsider in question, as it takes its more sinister turn.

Masatoshi Nagase is a king of understatement (for reference, watch him in Sweet Bean or Kano), but here he takes angst-filled brooding to new artistic heights. He hardly speaks a word, yet you can see the pain radiating out from him. We feel it with him, when Sabu reveals the shockingly brutal truth.

Happiness is likely to be divisive, but that’s nothing new for Sabu. However, it is also an acutely human, achingly moving film. It might just be the most memorable and distinctive pay-back movie since the original, largely misunderstood Death Wish. Yet, it is impossible to imagine it would have a fraction of its potency with a different actor playing Kanzaki. (We shudder at the thought of an English remake with the likes of Johnny “The Tourist” Depp).

Although Happiness has fantastical elements, there are no grand cosmic special effects. Instead, it is an unusually intimate tale, delicately calibrated by Sabu with exquisite care. It forces viewers to contemplate the worst of humanity, but it does not leave us bereft of hope. Very highly recommended, Happiness screens this Friday (7/14), at the SVA Theatre, as part of this year’s NYAFF.