Monday, July 02, 2018

NYAFF ’18: The Scythian Lamb

Yeah, let’s hear it for rehabilitation. It will save the aging seaside town of Uobuka. Under the mayor’s secret new plan, six convicted murders have been granted early parole on the condition they commit to live in the quiet community for ten years, to help reverse the outbound flow of residents to the bigger cities. Right, what could possibly go wrong with that plan? It is the job of poor city bureaucrat Hajime Tsukisue to make sure the scheme runs smoothly, but some of the new residents will not be so cooperative in Daihachi Yoshida’s The Scythian Lamb (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

Tsukisue picks them up, one by one, and helps them settle in, but he is largely unaware of their history. Hiroki Fukumoto is rather nervous, but that is okay. He’ll just be working with scissors and razors as an employee of the town barber shop. Reiko Ota will be an unusually sexy orderly at the senior center, which is all fine with Tsukisue, until she commences a relationship with his father. Shigero Ono is obviously a crusty old Yakuza, but he is truly disgusted with his former life. Kiyomi Kurimoto is still very tightly-wound, but is she ever diligent when it comes to cleaning. The thuggish, unrepentant Katsushi Sugiyama will be trouble. The rather spacey Ichiro Miyakoshi could be even more so, but initially he rather takes to the small town.

In fact, Tsukisue finds him a rather pleasant chap. They even develop a friendship until Miyakoshi starts dating Aya, Tsukisue’s high school crush (and current garage band-mate), who recently returned from Tokyo, after a job and a relationship went sour.  Obviously, six murderers in one town is a poorly conceived exercise in social engineering that will inevitably come to a head—logically during the annual festival dedicated to the town’s mythical sea monster, Nororo.

Masahito Kagawa’s adaption of the source manga starts out as a sort of fish out of water comedy, but Scythian Lamb (a reference to Tartary myth that isn’t worth the time to explain) swerves into noir territory during the second act. Frankly, the film probably takes a dimmer view of rehabilitation than it sounds like the original manga did. In this case of the film, the more reformed the killer, the more over-prosecuted they were in the first place. Yet, Miyakoshi is a special, specially troubling case. Ryuhei Matsuda almost reprises his performance as the awkward alien invader in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Before We Vanish, but he gives Miyakoshi a greater undercurrent of menace.

Likewise, Ryo Nishikido brings out greater depth and dimension in Tsukikue than his mild-mannered demeanor initially suggests. Yuka (uni-named), Min Tanaka, and Mikako Ichikawa all shine in key supporting moments, as Ota, Ono, and Kurimoto, respectively, while Kazuki Kitamura is aptly loathsome as Sugiyama. He can set off your inner spider-sense with just an evil side-long glance.

There are some terrific performances in Scythian, but whoever designed the Nororo statue overlooking the sea deserved a cold, frosty Sapporo. This is a richly rewarding film, precisely because it is so tricky to pin down. Very highly recommended, The Scythian Lamb screens Thursday night (7/5) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.