Friday, June 7, 2019

Movie Reivew: Asako I & II

Asako I & II *** / *****
Directed by: Ryûsuke Hamaguchi   
Written by: Sachiko Tanaka & Ryûsuke Hamaguchi based on the novel by Tomoka Shibasaki.
Starring: Masahiro Higashide (Baku / Ryôhei), Erika Karata (Asako), Sairi Itô (Haruyo), Kôji Nakamoto (Hirakawa), Kôji Seto (Kushihashi), Misako Tanaka (Eiko), Daichi Watanabe (Okazaki), Rio Yamashita (Maya). 
As I watched Asako I & II, I kept expecting it to lead somewhere else – to make some sort of larger point than this modestly scaled drama about settling in relationships, and it never really does. The film certainly kept me engaged and interested as it went along – I kept wanting to see what was going to happen. It is a well-made film – with some beautiful moments. The performances are sensitive and well-tuned. The film settles into a kind of dream like state – constantly threatening to go to a more surreal place that it never gets to, or perhaps something more grounded that, likewise, it never really does. It may well have been a better film had it gone in one direction or another. As it stands, I’m still not quite sure I get the point of it all – or even if there was one. But it’s something.
The film stars’ newcomer Erika Karata as Asako – a quiet, shy, adorable Japanese woman in her early 20s, who meets Baku (Masahiro Higashide) one day at a museum, and immediately falls for him. He’s a slacker, with head of hair falling into his face, who never seems to be moving quickly to anywhere. She thinks he loves her too – and then one day, he’s just gone. He went out to buy shows, and never came back. Two years later, Asako has moved from Osaka to Tokyo, and meets Ryohei – who looks exactly like Baku (with a different haircut) – but has a completely different personality. He’s serious and driven – he has a job at the sake company, right next door to the café where Asako works. Asako tries to fight against her attraction to him – but ultimately gives in, never revealing her secret about Baku – who eventually reappears as a famous model. And Ryohei really, truly loves her. And perhaps she grows to love him too.
You could do a few things with this premise – like I said, you could make a kind of surreal, Lynch-ian nightmare out of it. You could go full Hitchcock in Vertigo-terrain here for some sort of thriller. Or maybe Antonioni like in L’Aventurra. Go full strange like Resnais’ in Last Year at Marienbad. Or, perhaps, you could treat everything more realistically – and make a character study of what this truly means. Oddly, director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi doesn’t really do that. He makes a drama about settling – which we all do in our relationships to a certain extent – but one in which the characters speak in similes or comparisons, sometimes making cryptic statements, that in real life, would like provoke questions from those around them – but here, really does not. You watch the film, and you can tell Asako is settling for Ryohei – and that Ryohei truly does love her. There is an ease in the body language between these two, a gentle, subtle report between them. There’s no sexual chemistry between them – this is an oddly sexless movie in general, as if it doesn’t even enter the equation.
The fact that I can namecheck Lynch, Hitchcock, Antonioni and Resnais when writing about this film should be good for something. There is talent here in the direction, in the performances, in the writing, etc. It is a film where I was never bored, where I was always trying to read what was behind it all. I’m just not sure it ends up meaning much of anything. But it’s something – I just cannot figure out what.

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