Thursday, July 06, 2017

NYAFF ’17: Love and Other Cults

It is tough being a delinquent in a small town. Once you get tagged with a rep, fairly or unfairly, it is impossible to shake. That definitely happens to poor Ai Shima. All she wants is to be loved and all Ryota Sakuma wants to do is love her, but everything and everyone conspires against them in Eiji Uchida’s Love and Other Cults (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 New York Asian Film Festival.

Shima’s mother never showed her any affection, because her love is always reserved for the various religious cults she compulsively joins. Ironically, when her mother shipped her off to the commune run by the dodgy western con artist Lavi, Shima finally found the love and acceptance she craved. Alas, it would not last. When the cops returned her to her neglectful mother, Shima fell in with a loose knit group of punks. That is how she met Sakuma. He looks like a studious, blazer-wearing high schooler, but he is as jaded as they come.

Nevertheless, he desperately wants to save Shima from her demeaning life, but she is stuck running scams for the likes of aspiring yakuza Yuji Mieno, who is determined to impress the local boss, Kida. However, when his imposing right-hand man Kenta Kitagawa shows signs of disillusionment, perhaps envisioning a more stable life with Reika Kojima, the beautiful marine biologist, Mieno will start lashing out to shore up his position.

Tonally, LAOC covers the waterfront. Think of it as one part Sion Sono’s Love Exposure, one part Tetsuya Nakashima’s Memories of Matsuko, and one part The Breakfast Club. Although it is billed as something of a transgressive comedy, the overriding emotion it inspires is one of profound sadness for the frequently rejected and abandoned Shima. Sairi Itô plays her with such earnestness and a vulnerability, it often hurts to watch her.

Frankly, Kenta Suga’s Sakuma is a bit of a cold fish cypher opposite her. In contrast, Kaito Yoshimura is so flamboyantly and erratically nuts as Mieno, he is like watching a fireworks show. Old crafty Denden does his thing as sinister old Kida. However, (uni-named) Antony and Hanae Kan unexpectedly steal the show as Kitagawa and Kojima, developing to our shock and dismay, a healthy, appealing romantic relationship.

Uchida demands a lot and gives maybe just enough. For a supposed comedy, LAOC is often uncomfortable and mean-spirited. Yet, most of the characters are so sharply drawn, they will start to feel real to you. It is a close call, but the work of Itô, Antony, and Kan really deserves to be seen when Love and Other Cults screens this Saturday (7/8) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.