Monday, February 18, 2019

WFA ’19: To Tokyo

Her name is Alice, which might be significant. Instead of Wonderland, she will be plunging a netherworld ruled by a sinister yōkai. However, the gravest forms of peril are the human kind in Caspar Seale-Jones’s To Tokyo, which screens today during this year’s Winter Film Awards.

Alice is not making the most of her time in Japan. Clearly suffering from deep, compounded trauma, she has effectively barricaded herself inside her small provincial hotel room. Yet, somehow, she manages to roust herself to briefly meet her half-sister Zoe at the station. Unfortunately, the half-sibling has come to implore Alice to return home before her ailing mother’s imminent death. The freshly prompted memories of home, particularly of her abusive step-father, will trigger Alice’s descent into a strange fantasy world.

Whether it is real (in a supernatural sense) or merely the projection of her fevered mind is a matter for each viewer’s interpretation. Regardless, this fantasyscape does not appear very Japanese, despite being ruled over by a yōkai lord. In fact, the yurts and steppe backdrops look Himalayan or Central Asian. It is a harsh environment, with little sustenance, but it might ironically be safer than Tokyo, where a suspicious westerner is eager to get reacquainted with Alice, after their chance encounter in the village.

To Tokyo might well be the sort of film that works better as a short than an extended feature. Even at seventy-five minutes, it often feels like it is belaboring the point. This is definitely supposed to be a deliberate mood piece, but it often feels slower than it should. Nevertheless, the technical craftsmanship is quite impressive. Cinematographer Ralph Messer lenses some striking images, dramatically utilizing the full frame. Editors Ashley Smith and Joseph Tims also cut his visuals together in quite a striking way.

Admittedly, Alice’s mental and physical health are supposed to be in a rather anemic state, but Florence Kosky is such a wispy, passive leading lady, she looks like she could blow away in a moderately strong wind. Likewise, Seale-Jones’s narrative is similarly thin and under-nourished. Frankly, this film will make viewers want to buy it a bowl of chicken soup.

In this case, a little more could have been a lot more. We can see what Seale-Jones is getting at. Clearly, the Japanese setting is not a mistake. Seale-Jones is definitely channeling traditional Kwaidan-esque supernatural folklore, as well as the overwhelming (and dehumanizing) ambiance of Shinjuku. This could have been something like a cross between Lost in Translation and Black Orpheus (without the soundtrack), but it should have had greater discipline. An intriguing first attempt at something, but not for general audiences, To Tokyo screens today (2/18) at the Cinema Village, as part of this year’s Winter Film Awards.