Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Thoughts on "Don't Laugh at My Romance"


Thanks for all your words of support on my last post. My old man isn't as dead as we thought he would be, so I'm back in Japan for the meantime.

The most surprising thing about "Hito no Sekkusu o Warau na" (Don't Laugh at My Romance) was the sobbing of the girls sitting next to me. It's by no means another one of those movies that floods cinemas with generic junai tear gas, and the scenes that brought on the sniffles weren't lachrymose in the slightest. But for these young women, apparently students in their early twenties like Aoi Yu's awkward protagonist, her plight resonated silently but strongly. As the lights went up, one of them summed up their viewing experience in one word: "painful" (kurushii). I shared the sensation, but not for quite the same reasons.

On the Friday night I saw the film at Shibuya's Cine Saison, the close-to-full house was packed with young women and couples, with a smattering of middle-aged salarymen about whom it's only a little unfair to assume were attracted by the raunchy promise of the title and 37-year-old Nagasaku Hiromi's enduring sex appeal. With Matsuyama Kenichi and Aoi in the leads and adapted from a Bungeisho Award-winning book by Yamazaki Naocola one might initially wonder why trendy young audience fodder like this is playing mini theatres in roadshow release rather than multiplexes worldwide, but when you realise the inevitable TV company lending its production muscle isn't one of the major networks but instead satellite broadcaster and longtime supporter of art and indie cinema WOWOW, it's not hard to figure out what kind of approach and aesthetic to expect. And for better and for worse, that's exactly what it delivers.

Mirume (Matsuyama), En-chan (Aoi) and Domoto (Oshinari Shugo), friends and indolent art university students living in rural Kiryu in Gunma, give a ride to a youthfully attractive middle-aged woman named Yuri (Nagasaku) stranded by the roadside. Later, while taking a smoke break between classes, Mirume finds himself giving her a light and learns she's teaching lithography, becoming her eager pupil. After being willingly seduced and deflowered at her studio, he grows increasingly infatuated with this confident and unconventional older woman to the growing dismay of his smitten but romantically repressed admirer En-chan. When Yuri's classes are suddenly cancelled, Mirume tracks her down at her home address where he is greeted by a photographer named Inokuma (Agata Morio), a man old enough to be Yuri's dad. Turns out it's her husband.

Director Iguchi Nami is one of Japanese independent cinema's great hopes for the future, coming up via Image Forum's film school and the Pia Film Festival before making her well-received debut feature "The Cat Leaves Home" (Inu Neko), which picked up three awards at the 2004 Torino Film Festival as well as earning her the Directors Guild of Japan's Best Newcomer accolade (making her the first woman to do so). With her latest, she succeeds in creating a mostly engaging observation of infatuation and loss that doggedly pursues low-key realism rather than pandering bathos. Mirume's helpless obsession with the inscrutably capricious Yuri is contrasted with the childish En-chan's passive capitulation to her more sexually aggressive rival. Both can't seem to find a way to give up their emotional dependencies, most likely because neither are really looking.

The film's English title substitutes the "sex" of the original Japanese with "romance", and Iguchi and Honcho Yuka's script does something very similar. You can almost huff the pheromones exuded by Nagasaku and Matsuyama's convincing sexual tension, but caution has overruled lust in not allowing it to reach its natural conclusion. We're denied seeing the lovers getting it on and nudity is limited to pre-and-post-coital undie exposure, but this is fitting in a way as the film is generally more interested in that which goes unsaid and undone between its characters. Amongst other things, Yuri's erratic behaviour goes unexplained for the most part, and En-chan's feelings for Mirume are so internalised that her eventual catharsis is inevitably anti-climactic. Although on one hand the refusal to resort to emotional histrionics and forced exposition is commendable, there's also a frustratingly familiar indie aversion to dialogue as well as an over-reliance on pregnant pauses in long takes to infer very little information. Patience wore very thin toward the end as Mirume and En-chan sat wordlessly at bus stops, rode a motorbike around and around in circles and other such drawn-out scenes that detracted from the actors' fine work. 137 minutes is way too long to spend with characters that ultimately aren't all that interesting, but Iguchi's unaffected direction and the central trio's fully committed performances go a long way to sustain interest.