Friday, July 04, 2008

New York Asian Film Festival: Sad Vacation

I didn't really attend the New York Asian Film Festival; I'd decided I wanted to see November before it ended its run, decided it might be a good idea to use the day-trip to see a game in Yankee Stadium before they knocked that down, bought tickets for those and the bus ride, and then found out that NYAFF started that weekend. So, much like Fantasia, I spent the next two weeks refreshing Subway Cinema's homepage to find out what was playing that weekend. I briefly considered the idea of booking a hotel room so I could take in some stuff on Sunday, since the bus ticket back to Boston that I'd booked had only cost a dollar, but that turned out to be too rich for my blood.

Sad Vacation wound up fitting pretty snugly in between a Yankees loss and a pretty darn good play. David Mamet can really work wonders with the f-bomb, especially when he's got Nathan Lane and Dylan Baker to work with. Yankee Stadium didn't impress me that much; it really felt sterile, making me really appreciate how good we have things in Boston with Fenway Park. Also, Yankees fans are a pretty passive lot. Maybe it would have been different if I'd seen a Yankees win or a game with a rival team rather than a bland interleague tilt with the Reds, but once the people in the bleachers were done calling the players' names, audience participation was pretty much all prompted by the jumbotron, which itself was pretty embarrassing at times: Noise between every pitch, crowing about "The Power of the 'Stache" after Giambi gets a single with two outs in a game the Yankees are losing by four... Oh, and the place started clearing out in the seventh inning.

Honestly, Yankees fans, I expected better. I thought you were like us, intense east coast baseball lovers. Poor show, New York.

On the other hand, I found the IFC Center a pretty nice place to see a movie. I think I was the second-to-last person in, so I wound up in the front row, but I've got to say - that seat is the most comfortable I've had in a movie theater not located in a furniture store.

Maybe next year I'll take in a little more of the NYAFF; the only really difficult part is that it overlaps Fantasia. Speaking of which, I'm writing this on the bus for Montreal, where I'll be covering the whole festival for eFilmCritic/Hollywood Bitch-slap. I think I've plotted out an attack that will have me seeing 80-odd films in two and a half weeks. That's worth being out of the country for Independence Day, I guess.

So, if you're going to be in Montreal, say hi. I'll be the guy with the media pass and the Red Sox t-shirt, pretty much no matter what the day. I really need to buy a t-shirt at some spot other than the Red Sox souvenir store one of these days.

Sad Vacation

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 21 June 2008 at the IFC Center #2 (New York Asian Film Festival)

I don't know if Japan has the old saying that you can choose your friends but not your family, though that idea is at the heart of Sad Vacation. That doesn't mean that people won't try, though, with decidedly mixed results.

Take Kenji Shiraishi (Tadanobu Asano) and Yuri Matsumura (Kaori Tsuji). The opening text informs us they witnessed Yuri's older brother (Kenji's best friend) kill a man and then turn the gun on himself. Yuri couldn't handle it, and is institutionalized in a state of denial; Kenji looks after her between what have usually been minor criminal jobs. In the latest, though, he's helping smuggle Chinese immigrants into the country, looking after a child when his father dies in transit. Sensing it wouldn't be wise to stick around - there are sickos out there for whom untraceable kids are a valuable commodity - Kenji opts for more honest work, as a designated driver. Two of his fares have a big effect on him: He and bar hostess Saeko Shiina (Yuka Itaya) are quickly smitten with each other, and while small trucking company owner Shigeo Mamiya (Ken Mistuishi) isn't significant himself, Kenji is sure that his wife Chiyoko (Eri Ishida) is the mother who abandoned him and his father when he was a child.

Writer/director Shinji Aoyama packs quite a bit into this film, to the point where it could easily become too much: If the studio had mandated he cut the film down to under two hours, for instance, he probably could have jettisoned the whole subplot with Aoi Miyazaki as Kozue Tamura, an eighteen-year-old girl who takes a job with Mamiya's trucking company after leaving home, especially the man who comes from her hometown to find her. The trucking company is populated by hard-luck cases with potentially interesting backstories, and one of the story lines stops relatively early even though its last scene would often be the impetus for everything that happens afterward.

Of course, that's part of the point of the greater story: Even though we've seen Kenji decide to look after Yuri and to boy A-chun, there is an emotional dead spot in him that he inherited from his mother, either from her genes or her absence. The grim events of Sad Vacation's later reels are the result of a relationship that explodes into dysfunction almost as soon as it re-establishes itself . Aoyama has Mamiya say that Kenji underestimates "the force of [Chiyoko's] mercy", and it's hard to say whether Chiyoko is truly merciful or manipulative in a remarkably far-reaching and vicious way. Both may be true; the drive to create and protect a family has led to a great deal of kindness and cruelty.

Tadanobu Asano is a ubiquitous figure in Asian cinema that makes its way to the west, and not just because he's prolific and works with popular directors. He translates well to other languages because he tends toward roles without a lot of complicated dialog, and silence needs no subtitles. Kenji's not quite so quiet as some of his other roles, but he's still a guy whose eyes often say more than his words. He's also got the ability to charm the audience even when he's mixed up in questionable activities.

Eri Ishida is a much colder presence; she's middle-aged and hardly playing a glamorous character, but there's a hint of femme fatale to her scenes with Asano. Not in a creepy, incestuous way, just that this is a woman who knows how to get what she wants from men, and her son is in no way immune. The rest of the cast is good, too - Kengo Kora is young and angry as Chiyoko's second son; Ken Mitsuishi is all too good-hearted as his father. Yuka Itaya is pleasant as Saeko, and Aoi Miyazaki is always interesting as Kozue.

I didn't learn until afterward that both Kozue and Kenji had appeared before; Miyazaki played Kozue in Aoyama's previous film, Eureka, the events of which are referenced here, while Asano played Kenji in a short film. Aoyama mines those films for flashbacks, but they are in no way necessary to enjoy this one. He does a fine job keeping things moving, even if it does mean occasionally giving certain subplots the short shrift - and as much as Kozue's story, for instance, may seem removable compared to other bits, I don't think I'd want the movie to go without it; Kozue offers a nice counterbalance to Kenji. I like how he has everybody spend the entire movie involved in moving things in one capacity or another (human trafficking, delivering cargo and bringing people home) only to mostly get caught in quagmires.

And the end is quietly devastating, final in many ways while making it painfully clear that family is something that can never truly be escaped. All in all, quite the excellent piece of work.

Also at eFilmCritic.

No comments: