Friday, July 07, 2017

NYAFF ‘17: Traces of Sin

It is considered tacky to speak ill of the dead, but Tanaka is a journalist, so all bets are off. Still, you would expect him to write a traditional innocent victimhood narrative when investigating the cold case murder of an affluent couple and their young daughter. However, what he uncovers regarding their arrogance and abuse of privilege completely upends established movie conventions in Kei Ishikawa’s Traces of Sin (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 New York Asian Film Festival.

Things are not going well for Tanaka. His sister Mitsuko is in prison facing child endangerment charges, while her emaciated three-year-old daughter slowly slips away on life-support. It is easy to hate Mitsuko, but Tanaka understands only too well how much abuse she suffered at their parents’ hands. That is why the backstories of Hiruki and Yukie Takou will trouble him so deeply.

Initially, he started re-investigating the Takou murders as a Quixotic distraction from his family issues. However, he soon learns how Takou and his boorish company mates would deliberately toy with new female recruits. Digging a little deeper, he finds he and his future wife were even crueler and more manipulative during their college years. Junko Miyamura is particularly eager to dish, because she yearned for acceptance among the unofficial “Insiders,” but never quite made it.

Traces is very definitely a murder mystery, but it is also an exploration of the dark side of human nature and the psychological triggers that cause the abused to become abusers. It is murky, pessimistic stuff, but absolutely riveting to watch unfold. Kosuke Mukai’s adapted screenplay gives us a sense Tokuro Nukui’s source novel shares some affinities with Gone Girl and the like. For one thing, there certainly seems to space for some unreliable narration.

Hikari Mitsushima might be one of the most accomplished but under-rated thesps in the world based on her knock-out work in Love Exposure and the thoroughly charming Hello! Junichi. As Mitsuko, she is frightfully vulnerable and pitiable yet simultaneously chilling to the bone. It is a quiet, tightly coiled performance that profoundly surprises many times over. Satoshi Tsumabuki is even more reserved, but he still conveys all the emotions roiling within Tanaka’s chest and the wheels turning inside his head. Asami Usuda’s Miyamura also makes a spectacular ice queen, to use a polite term.

Without question, Traces is a withering critique of peer pressure, corporate sexism, and rigid class structure. It also delivers a heck of a shock, when it starts revealing the ultimate truth (a peeling away process that starts relatively early in the third act). It is a feel-bad film in general, but at least it should give viewers the sense they are relatively together, in comparison. It is also an excellent work of cinema. Highly recommended for viewers in a healthy frame of mind, [Gukoroku]: Traces of Sin screens Monday (7/10) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.